Julia Alaniz

SEO Strategist, Learner, Reader, Explorer

Watercolors: Learning a New Medium in the Open

Watercolors: Learning a New Medium in the Open

testing123

A while back, I was showing my work to a friend, expressing that I don’t know where my black and white doodles and notes were headed next. “Have you ever tried color?” they asked. I couldn’t remember the last time I tried using color, and if I could it was an awful attempt. So I decided, what the hell, let’s introduce some color. I’ve followed the work of Wendy Macnaughton for quite awhile and it would be a lie to say that I’m not influenced by her or her style of writing and drawing. It seemed clear that I would grab watercolors.

I posed a question to Twitter along the lines of: since I’m obviously a beginner, should I grab cheap Crayola watercolors or pay an extra $10-15 and get something a bit better. The response was in favor of not being so cheap. I received my watercolors and opened them up, scared of them, not knowing where to start. I let them sit on my desk for awhile to acclimate.

watercolors

Finally, I had a little more time to sit down at my desk. More so, I had a thought to create something. Of course, I grabbed some white paper and a black pen. For the past few years, I’ve been using black and white, pen and paper exclusively when I make things. It’s always felt right and raw enough in some way. But this time with my paints staring at me, I decided to test the waters (pun intended) and apply them to the ink and paper doodle I made.

I quickly made the mistake of too much paint. I opened up my browser and searched examples and realized I needed to not be afraid of water. I also made the mistake of starting with the dark colors, to which I remembered all too late an art teacher in high school advising to start with the “lights” at first. Needless to say, the first piece was trashed.

But I’ve been playing with the watercolors ever since, and I’m obsessed. Last night, I was showing my work to a friend to build up the courage to show it publicly (F you, impostor syndrome!). And she asked me very seriously, “Julia, when did you learn to watercolor?”

I felt silly, and I replied, “I haven’t.”

Honestly, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve just been enjoying playing around and sort of honest about learning this new medium out in the open (based on Austin Kleon’s latest book). But in the search for what I’m supposed to be creating plus the consistency of making something small every day, a new medium was exactly what I needed.

In conversation before he left, Pavlos mentioned to me as I was sort of feeling down about the silly doodles I make, “I think you’re one thought away from it. You’re one thought away from something bigger.”

Sometimes you just need the reminder that your best friend believes in you. Or you just need them to leave for 3 months for work, so you have too much time to sit and make art. Let’s go with the first one.

For the first time I’m making art that kind of makes sense. And so far everyone I’ve shown it to has been impacted by it some way. I can’t wait to start sharing some actual pieces from this mini-amateur collection I’m working on.

Leave a comment

Making Business Writing Better

Making Business Writing Better

I write a lot. It’s a huge part of what I do both at my day job and outside of it. Getting my thoughts down on paper either with words or pictures (usually both) is how I think. When I say I write, I mean that I regularly make sentences that have a purpose, and I review and revise them like nobody’s business. 

Lately, I’ve become very interested in business writing and a trend I’ve seen ever since I’ve worked at a company where I consult and improve on other companies’ writing.

Most business writing is pretty bad.

How I’ve come to this opinion is solely based on the fact that so often after reading something business-related, I ask myself, “what did that even mean?”

How many times have you read website content, emails, descriptions, unique selling points…and not really taken away anything from it? How many times have you read business writing and it’s filled with loaded words that just feel like sales fluff?

I consider myself someone that has a decent reading comprehension. And I don’t think this idea of awful business writing is really a question of intelligence or reading comprehension at all. It’s more of a question of why can’t businesses write more clearly so that normal people can understand what they are trying to say. You shouldn’t have to be a genius to follow along. More so, you shouldn’t have to fight the fluff to get to the true meaning of a piece of writing.

So why is it like this?

Honestly, I think it’s a lot of the same reasons we all probably used to pull out a thesaurus (or thesaurus.com) and look for big words we didn’t know to replace the small words we knew. It made us sound like we had an impressive vocabulary and maybe it masked the fact that we didn’t have much to say.

I read an article that was tweeted over the weekend and I think the writer, Jason Fried put it nicely.

“Unfortunately, years of language dilution by lawyers, marketers, executives, and HR departments have turned the powerful, descriptive sentence into an empty vessel optimized for buzzwords, jargon, and vapid expressions. Words are treated as filler — “stuff” that takes up space on a page. Words expand to occupy blank space in a business much as spray foam insulation fills up cracks in your house. Harsh? Maybe. True? Read around a bit, and I think you’ll agree.”

I completely agree. I’m a marketer and it pains me to think people with titles like mine are contributing to the noise, crap and meaningless sentences filling business writing.

Instead of giving all this research and reasons I think business writing sucks, I prefer to be part of the solution. Here are some steps that I go through when I’m trying to revise, create or work on any type of writing.

5 Ways to Make Business Writing Better

1. Identify the Goal of Your Writing

I think this is overlooked a lot of times with all writing. Every time you write an email, begin a strategy or put your pen to paper, identify what your goal or purpose is. “I want the recipient of this email to understand/do/be aware of X.” “I want readers of this content to perform X action.” This gives you a clearer idea of what you’re writing for and paves the way for the actual content that should make up your writing.

2. Identify Your Audience

Even if your audience is full of lawyers, philosophers, etc. they’d probably appreciate if you cut the fluff and got to the point. Write for real people. Don’t use big words because you feel it makes your writing seem better, more elite or profound. It just makes it harder to cut through. If you want someone to get something from your writing (because you’ve identified your goal), keep it simple. Say what you want to say.

3. Identify All the Questions Your Writing Should Answer

It’s the same as going into a presentation or an interview or anything. You need to identify as many questions as possible that you may get based on your writing. Identified them? Great. Incorporate the answers.

4. Get Out a Piece of Paper. Make an Outline.

Sometimes we forget what it was like to write before a blinking cursor in a big white space staring at us in the face. There’s something about pen and paper. Make an outline using your hands. They help with determining the flow and direction of your writing.

5. Say What You Mean

Again, avoid the fillers. There are still plenty of ways to write compelling content with style that exclude the big words, sales speak and jargon. Having trouble with this? Say what you’re trying to say out loud as if you were explaining it to someone. Now write that down.

6. Get Someone Else to Read It

Another set of eyes is always useful. They see things that you may have overlooked over and over again from grammatical errors, awkward sentences to important things you forgot. Also, another set of eyes will tell you if you’re making sense or not.

Writing is hard. But the best advice I give to people is to say what you mean. Actually, the best advice I give to people on writing is to “write the shitty first draft” already and then worry about editing. Keep these points in mind when you write that first draft.

Leave a comment

Review of Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

There’s no secret that my favorite artist who draws is Austin Kleon. I like to call him my internet hero, and much like he suggests in Steal Like an Artist, I steal and remix from him as well as study his work and the work that inspires him. Recently he came out with a new book called Show Your Work, which sort of piggy backs off of Steal. Steal was all about, “hey, stop trying to create something no one has ever done before, because it’s all been done. Study the artists’ work you love and become inspired by it. And freakin’ make something.”

Show Your Work is more like, “hey, that stuff that you’ve been making? If you want people to see/notice/care, freakin’ show it off already. There’s beauty in the process.”

steal remix steal remixwork show work show

Now there’s way more to it than that for both books, but what I love about them is that they get to the point. You don’t have to sift through tons of information just to get to “the secret.” The secret is in just doing, and Kleon offers some great guidelines on how to enhance what you’re doing for marketing your work.

Be an Amateur.

There’s a great quote that Kleon references from Zen monk, Shunryu Suzuki. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.”

I feel like there’s so much pressure these days on becoming an expert in something. Having other people see you as an expert is great. You want people to have a certain level of trust in your work for what you do, but when you start believing you’re an expert, you’re in trouble. Like Kleon says, “we’re all terrified of being revealed as amateurs.” But it is the amateurs often who have the advantage because they “don’t know enough to know what can’t be done yet.” Amateurs are learners and make a point to stub their toes in the open so that others can learn from it.

“Forget about being an expert or a professional, and wear your amateurism (your heart, your love) on your sleeve. Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you.”

show your work book review

Share Something Small Every Day

Out of everything in the book, I feel like this chapter spoke to me the most. I think for anyone who puts their work out in to the open, they always feel a little bit of vulnerability once they hit publish. It’s the same feeling you get before you send an important email. It’s the same feeling when you speak in front of a room of strangers or play in front of a crowd. The internet is both a scary and friendly world in which you have to “Learn to Take a Punch.”

But just like all the scenarios above, once you do it enough, it gets easier. Once you create enough and share it, each little piece you share feels like less of a big deal out in the world.

Kleon suggests that once you’ve done your day’s work, go back to what you documented and share a piece of the process — a photo, sketch, quote, video, idea. What if you got your next job or opportunity not because of your resume but because of what you share from your work?

For me, that’s motivating. I have all these interests and I practice them weekly, but I haven’t quite figured out how they fit together or where they are going to get me. In other words, I haven’t figured out what I’m supposed to do when I grow up. Sharing something small every day. I can handle that, because maybe through that is where I figure it out.

Upcoming

Austin Kleon will be in Houston on April 30 at Brazos Bookstore as part of his Show Your Work book tour. I’m stoked and hopefully will have pictures and notes to post from the talk.

On Research & Effort in Interviews

On Research & Effort in Interviews

This May, I’ll have worked at my current company for three years. It’s flown by really. But it’s really something I’m proud of since finding a day job that doesn’t always feel like a day job is rare. I’ve done a lot of maturing in the last 3 years, but it doesn’t feel like it was that long ago when I was printing my resume, portfolio and trying to find a job.

Now as a Sr. SEO, I assist in choosing the next people who will be part of my team. While it’s really an honor feeling like my judgment can be trusted, I’m going to be honest. Interviewing people is incredibly hard. Aside from the difficulty of understanding someone’s work ethic and if they’ll even work out based on their answers and references (from people who are supposed to say nice things about them), it feels like you’re judging someone. I remember being there, so I’m aware of what it feels like to try to prove yourself to a stranger.

While I’m completely cognizant of the nerve-wrecking process interviewing can be, I’ve seen an interesting trend in some of the answers and attitudes I’ve received in the last 6+ months that I’ve been on the other side of the table. It’s probably important to say that this isn’t a rant. More like some constructive feedback for young people who want to work at cool companies…or any company for that matter. It’s also important to note that I’m not claiming to be an expert in any of this. I have plenty of room to grow as an interviewer.

But one thing I’ve seen is a lack of effort in fully researching my company. If a company is going to potentially invest in you, you need to invest some of your time to learn about them.

  1. So that you can make sure they will be a good fit for you, your goals and your career path.

  1. So that you seem knowledgeable and connect with your interviewer on some level. Think about it like a sales pitch. If you were to try to win a client without researching much about them, it will show and you won’t get the client.

For most interviews, I ask some of the same questions especially since I normally get candidates that have interviewed once or twice already with us. I want a clearer understanding of what they know and based on that, why they want to be part of the team. Recently an interview went something along the lines of this:

Me: So tell me what you know about [my company].

Candidate: It seems like a cool place to be an employee.

Me: Can you expand on that? Why do you say that?

Candidate: I saw on Facebook that you go out and eat and do things together.

There are some special things that stand out my company. Most of what I’m looking for is a mention of some of those special things and also how they may connect with those things or why they want to join my company. I try to keep it open on purpose to see how they deal with making an answer. In the interview above, there was no mention of services, awards, partnerships. Clearly, I was a bit underwhelmed.

Part of the problem may how there’s an increased focus these days on company culture and the idea of working at an office that has catered lunches, company outings, gaming systems in break rooms, beer Fridays, Kool-Aid fountains, and whatever else people feel entitled to as being an employee of X company. However, those things are not company culture. Those are perks. Some of those things are perks at my company, and I am grateful for them. I mean, I get to wear Converse every day if I wanted.

Perks contribute to company atmosphere but culture comes from a group of like-minded people working towards the same goals in my opinion. People make your company culture.

Researching the atmosphere and working environment of a company is important. I’m not arguing its importance. It matters, and it’s often best conveyed through social media which is where a lot of people start to research that. But it’s also easy in my opinion. Anyone can think that they “get” or “know” a company by looking at social. It’s not enough.

If you’re serious about joining a team, digging deeper than just perks and what’s handpicked for social media is necessary. Finding out what drives a culture is way more impressive or even asking your interviewer (because most people usually don’t even have questions). Read a mission statement, read core values, read case studies. Do more than just look at fun pictures.

A lot of what makes my company great is the people and the work satisfaction that comes from our company culture and atmosphere. Asking yourself why people enjoy working somewhere and what drives them every day is really important. I don’t want people I interview to just tell me that they know a great environment exists and they want to be a part of it. I’m more interested in the why. You can’t give why unless you’ve done enough research. Otherwise, it seems like you’re someone who just wants a cool place to work and not someone interested in the work that drives everyone.

Leave a comment

Being Sick & The Motivation That Comes After

I’ve been sick for almost a week now with cold, flu, cough, nastiness, whatever. You know, the crap that everyone says is “going around.” One thing I never realized (or paid attention to) is when you get really sick, there’s this reoccurring feeling you get of helplessness and guilt for not being able to be productive. It’s an incredibly annoying feeling. You want to do all these things but you are held back physically and mentally because you feel awful.

In that feeling however, there’s motivation. It’s been a reminder to get back to some of my favorite things that make me feel better like running, drawing, etc. So here’s a summary of my sickness / time off that my friend thought was ‘hilarious’ because it had 5 arrows.

 

While being sick, I’ve caught up on some Parks & Rec reading. Here are a few of my favorite links:

Hemingway App

A Comprehensive Theory of Bullshit

Lynda Barry’s Class Syllabus via Austin Kleon

Setting the Right Mindset When It Comes to SEO Training

I’m lucky enough to have a heavy hand in training for new SEOs at my company. Much of my excitement around training and leading others comes from a desire to inspire people to learn. I’ve had a handful of teachers, professors and mentors who have taught me this. So now that I’ve been in a position to train others consistently for over a year, I’ve realized how difficult training and teaching really are.

Seth Godin describes it well in his recent post, “How to draw an owl.”

The two circles aren’t the point. Getting the two circles right is a good idea, but lots of people manage that part. No, the difficult part is learning to see what an owl looks like. Drawing an owl involves thousands of small decisions, each based on the answer to just one question, “what does the owl look like?” If you can’t see it (in your mind, not with your eyes), you can’t draw it.

The hardest part of training (not just SEO) I’ve found is teaching people how to see and think in a different way than what they are used to. If you can teach people to think about certain things correctly, when they have to make a decision on their own, they will be well on their way to being successful. This part is the responsibility of the trainer.

Not all the responsibility falls on the trainer, however. The trainee has responsibilities as well. Here are a few articles I always share with the people I’m training:

You Only Get One Chance to Be a Beginner from 37signals

This is the time to do the impossible, because you don’t know enough to know what can’t be done yet.

Making Shit Work is Everyone’s Job from 37 signals 

Don’t let your company culture become one where certain people are too good to do the jobs that need doing. Making shit work is everyone’s job.

A bit straightforward, but I think it gets the point across. A lot of what SEO is simply making things work. Not to dumb it down, because there’s a lot of strategy that goes into making things work, but having this attitude usually makes someone successful. I try to work by these rules: make people around me better and make things work. If I can’t get something to work, I find out how or who can help me. Pretty simple.

 

Reads This Week: New Years, Seinfeld & Documenting Life

Happy New Year! I haven’t gotten around to fully fleshing out my goals for the year, but a few of the ones I do know I want to accomplish include creating more + sharing what I create (drawing, writing) and being more present. In an effort to create / produce more, I’ll be trying to share a few things I enjoyed reading every week. I may also sprinkle in something I’ve created every once in a while. This week I will.

Something I created: A friend of mine took interest in how I take notes and process things visually. She asked me to create a template for her to put down her New Year’s goals and resolutions. (My first request!) Here’s what I came up with:

new year's goal template

Articles I enjoyed:

My Reading Year, 2013

My Reading Year, 2013

Every year I seem to always have a goal of reading more than the last. 2013 stayed true to that goal for the majority of the year. What’s different about my reading year in 2013 was the addition of fiction. I’ve always gravitated towards nonfiction so this year there were more novels sprinkled in to my stack of books.

Here are 5 books that I really enjoyed this year:

Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
This book had been sitting on my shelf for over a year. Prior to Cat’s Cradle, I found it hard to get into Kurt Vonnegut books. But Cat’s Cradle made Vonnegut’s writing make sense to me. It was like an adventure, a really silly one where I just enjoyed the ride. This is what Vonnegut said about this book in particular and I think it’s why I loved it.

It’s damned hard to make jokes work. In Cat’s Cradle, for instance, there are these very short chapters. Each one of them represents one day’s work, and each one is a joke.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan
Speaking of adventures, this was another great one. And the cover glows in the dark! Being in Search, Google is such a huge part of my life, so it was easy to relate. Also, it was just interesting and well written.

The Sketchnote Handbook, Mike Rohde
I’ve followed Mike Rohde’s work since college and have tried my own versions of sketchnoting since then as well. After reading the Sketchnote Handbook and referencing it throughout the year, I was inspired to sketchnote the Search Marketing conference I went to in Seattle.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami
I set out to be able to run a 5k during 2013. Then I ran a 10k. Then I read this book and became inspired by Murakami’s routine and dedication to running. Quotes from this memoir got me through training when I didn’t want to train or when my legs were being stubborn. I ended up running a half marathon in 2013 and I thought about this memoir for motivation every day I prepared.

99U’s Manage Your Day to Day
I enjoy 99U’s blog so much, so it was a no brainer to purchase their first book with a compilation of people who are able to get things done. This book changed my perspective on many things in terms of productivity, but mostly made it simple enough for me to actually implement little things for me to be more efficient and work smarter. I liked it so much, I put a recap together of my favorite takeaways.

Going into 2014, I have the same goal to read more. But one mindset I’ll be keeping for the new year is the Rule of 50 from Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust, which I discovered by who other than Austin Kleon:

Nobody is going to get any points in heaven by slogging their way through a book they aren’t enjoying but think they ought to read. I live by what I call ‘the rule of fifty,’ which acknowledges that time is short and the world of books is immense. If you’re fifty years old or younger, give every book about fifty pages before you decide to commit yourself to reading it, or give it up. If you’re over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100. The result is the number of pages you should read before deciding.

Leave a comment

My Favorite Takeaways From 99U’s Manage Your Day-to-Day

When I saw the line up of creatives and thought leaders contributing to 99U’s Manage Your Day-to-Day, it was an easy decision to purchase it. 99u by Behance is a website that I’ve followed closely for the last few years. I’m also a big fan of Scott Belsky; I get his Quarterly Co. boxes.

In a nutshell, this tiny read goes on my list of books that I like to reference each year. In my book, I marked it up with things like, “YES!” or “THIS –>” and  “Need this on my desk!” Below are a few of the quotes and ideas that got those scribbles + notes on how I’ve begun to implement them to “build my routine, find my focus and sharpen my creative mind.”

99u manage my day to day review

Managing Emails — Reactive vs. Proactive Work

Within the first few pages, Scott Belsky describes the notion of reactive vs. proactive work.

Through our constant connectivity to each other, we have become increasingly reactive to what comes to us rather than being proactive about what matters most to us.

At my job, I began a bad habit of falling into reactive work. I was guilty of answering emails as the came in, which usually had less priority than what I may have been working on. Email is an easy trap because:

  1. There is a sense of urgency to clear my inbox of a bolded, unread message.
  2. At the moment, it feels like a quick way of getting something done.

I’ve since then tried to block certain times of my day to get to emails and certain times to get work done and focus. This is a tough thing to do, but I’ve started slow.

Building a New Morning Routine

Multiple times in Manage Your Day-to-Day, mornings are mentioned as some of the most precious, sacred time for a creative. Why? Because energy levels are high and it’s generally a time where you don’t owe anyone anything. (Everyone else is busy checking their email.)

I, like many, had a bad habit of coming and checking my email first thing in the morning. Now, I don’t open Outlook until I’ve prioritized my day (making a list of 2 to 3 things I want to accomplish) and billed an hour — in other words, done something valuable for one of my clients.

In regards to emails, I’ve also tried to be smarter about them. Can I fit everything I want to say into one email that’s easy to read? Or should I pick up the phone? Maybe I need to schedule a meeting? Can I put a more thoughtful, researched answer together for a coworker or a client to limit the amount of back and forth that happens?

Like Aaron Dignan puts it,

I don’t want to simply beat back my email every day like some pointless enemy.

Email can be a time sucker and also be a distraction from getting ‘mindful’ work done.

Mindful vs. Mindless Work — Providing Value

Erin Rooley Doland of Unclutter.com brings up good points about the difference between mindful and mindless work. An example of each would be:

  • Mindless: simple maintenance and service tasks, things that can be done without much thought.
  • Mindful: core tasks that include problem solving or invention of some sort.

It’s necessary to have a mixture of both. As Doland puts it,

Shifting from mindful to mindless work gives the brain time to process complex problems in a relaxed state and also restores the energy necessary for the next round of mindful work.

While it’s necessary to have both, again — mindless work can be a trap. Finding the balance between the two is important. Mindless work can feel good because it’s an easy way to get things done and feel more productive. But at some point, whether it’s for a client or for a personal project, there needs to be time scheduled for mindful work, time to provide something valuable to move a project forward.

Back to developing a morning routine, Mark McGuinness says,

I never schedule meetings in the morning, if I can avoid it.

This is brilliant, because it provides a consistent block of time for your most important work. Creative and mindful work first — reactive, mindless work second.

In situations that I can control, I try to do the same now. It’s inevitable however that not all my meetings can be in the afternoon. On days I know have mornings filled with meetings, I come in a bit early to work so that I have time to produce something more mindful. Otherwise, my productivity for the rest of the day suffers because for me, it’s hard to get the creative flow going in the afternoon.

The Secret is in the Morning

For me, the secret to being more productive and being more creative is in how I structure my mornings. But more specifically, I think it’s just realizing and auditing how we work, when we feel most creative and focused and taking advantage of those blocks of time. Whether it’s in the morning or afternoon, being mindful of distractions like emails, being thoughtful of how communication can improve our workdays and being proactive in providing value to whatever it is we’re working on — those are the keys.