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What We're Reading in 2023

Pause, breathe and read.

Don Sanford 

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I’m half way through Michener’s sweeping historical human drama novel, Caribbean. It starts with the early settlers landing in the West Indies and barrels through 500 plus years of life in the peaceful ocean concentrating mainly on the stretch of tiny islands from Cuba to Trinidad, and many related places along the coast in Central America. We become familiar with pirates and famous buccaneers (Captain Morgan of the famed rum), military leaders and sailors fighting for land (from Spain, England and France), and barons who manage powerful sugar plantations with abusive slavery as a backbone of their operations. Sometimes inspiring, sometimes sad, sometimes horrific and other times beautiful … with Michener you will run the gamut of human emotions while also coming to understand how we got where we are today. He is a master of bringing history to life.

The Road is a Pulitzer Prize winning book by Cormac McCarthy (he also penned All the Pretty Horses) set in a post-apocalyptic 2006. It follows the journey of a father and son as they move south in a desolate world fraught with danger and mystery at every turn. It’s a quick, edge-of-your-seat read and you really aren’t sure what will become of these two characters until they reach their final destination. Creepy and yet captivating at the same time, I marvel at how this tale parallels the feeling we had living through the pandemic, even though it was written fourteen years prior to Covid.

Julia Wolf

A friend gave me this book for Christmas. If you followed the Olive and Mabel videos during the COVID-19 shutdown (which I obviously did!), you’ll love Cotter’s loving explanation of how his Labrador Retrievers, Olive and Mabel, inspired him and translated into videos that uplifted us all!

Provides an important understanding of the Federal Reserve Bank and its impact on the U.S. economy.

Glen Gonzalez

A.E. Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia, and now lives in Athens, Greece. Fitting, since her poetry is known for use of classical forms and allusions. I think I discovered Stallings while searching for translations of The Nature of Things by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius. (Her translation was published in 2007.) While all this may sound like the kind of stuffy academic prattle that turns most people away from poetry, Stallings work is accessible, fresh and modern. Check out the opening stanza to Pop Music:

The music that your son will listen to
To drive you mad
Has yet to be invented. Be assured,
However, it is approaching from afar
Like the light of some Chaldean star.

Rhyme, rhythm, form and a reference to ancient Mesopotamians all in a mother’s lament about the state of popular music. That’s Stallings.

Or take her poem Olives. Each line includes an anagram of the word “olives” and it’s 19 lines long. Is love / so evil?

Her work seems so simple, but it’s a masterclass in the art and craft of poetry. Once I started reading her work, I was hooked and have started buying every one of her collections I can get my hands on.

Trey Wood

I fell in love with noir early on – books and movies. In a college class many years ago, my first exposure to the ideas expressed in this broad category of cynicism and moral ambiguity came in the form of Dashiell Hammett’s writings. My first reads were his Red Harvest, The Big Knockover and The Dain Curse—all these focusing on his iconic character the Continental Op, a short, fat, unimaginably tough private investigator whose name we never learn.

A new year’s resolution has been to revisit some of the books, characters and movies that first struck my interest in noir and the modern response to its fatalism that has come, in my view, in the popularizing of Marcus Aurelius’ stoicism. Well, I’m beginning where I started—with Red Harvest. It’s not only a fabulous detective story, it’s a classic tale of corruption that is purely American in its violence and lonely individual hero.

Gretchen Vaught

This year my kids and I together read (“Chariots of Fire”) Eric Liddell’s biography. It was an inspiring example of Divine talent “wasted” for others instead of self. A poignant contrast to current cultural messages teens are overwhelmed with.

Though I don’t usually enjoy fiction, The Songbook of Benny Lament was both captivating and entertaining.

Allison Artnak

I came across a podcast from neurologist Dr. Perlmutter on dementia that touched on the link between purines, high uric acid and dementia (not to mention a host of other conditions that can be influenced by inflammation) that I found quite fascinating. I have only gotten through the first chapter but have already learned a bunch.

I wasn’t familiar with Mary Reynolds until I recently watched the movie Dare to be Wild, the journey of how Mary won the Chelsea Flower Show. I enjoyed her passion for restoring native ecosystems to develop beautiful spaces and sanctuaries. I researched her a bit after watching the movie and found she had just published this book that also incorporates lovely illustrations. I can’t wait to dig in!

A humorous novel about a woman scientist in the 1960s that becomes a star of a TV cooking show.

Amy Crowell

A novelist scratching for his second bestseller uses the idea of a former student, newly discovered dead, as the premise of his book and then suffers at the threat of being exposed. If you are in it for the mystery, you may be disappointed as it likely will be prematurely solved. But the writing is fine, and the main character’s angst is sympathetic. Thoroughly enjoyed.

One morning, at exactly the same moment, every person in the world receives a box that holds the answer to the exact number of years they will live. Everyone faces the same dilemma: Do they wish to know how long they’ll live? And, if so, what will they do with that knowledge? I’ll find out when I’ve read more than 3 chapters.

Norine Cannon

Lessons in Chemistry, Bonnie Garmus
An historical fiction book about an independent, strong woman in the 60s. She’s a scientist whose career takes a detour when she becomes the reluctant star of a TV cooking show. It’s funny and poignant at the same time, addressing issues faced by so many women today.

Fun, firsthand accounts from 100 years of Hollywood history. It’s a compilation of interviews with the biggest names in front of and behind the camera, as well as lesser-known individuals who shaped what was seen and heard on screen—from the archives of the American Film Institute.

Michael Garcia

Yes, the same Michael Mann who wrote and directed the 1995 movie Heat with Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, wrote this novel—his first—as a 466-page prequel and sequel to his original story. I had to read it, at least to find out what happened to a heartbroken Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) after he got the no-go sign from Charlene. If you’re following, welcome, you’re a Heat devotee like me. The book didn’t disappoint. I encourage you to read it…or don’t. It’s a free country, brother.

Truth be told, I received this book for Christmas and haven’t started it yet. McCarthy is one of my favorite authors. I’m more than ready to soak up another of his stories, even if a little nervous that his new work (it’s been since 2006!) won’t live up to the greatness of his past.

Rick Cole

A quirky little book (The cover is on backwards.) promoting the courageous pursuit of creativity and innovation. With a dizzying array of historical examples, quotes and photographs, Kessels (a successful adman and provocative artist) takes dead aim at the myth of perfection and its stunted offspring—safe mediocrity.

I found this in our voluminous used bookstore, Chamblin Bookmine. It caught my eye for two reasons. First, Disney and the State of Florida are having a protracted falling out for the first time. Second, native son Carl Hiaasen is a witty and deeply knowledgeable chronicler of Florida’s transformation over the past 50 years.

As a third generation Floridian born in 1965, my life has run parallel to Disney World’s inception and its unimaginable impact on the natural, economic and cultural nature of Florida. For the record, I miss Old Florida.

Scott Walters

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Why Traffic Signs Work

A Lesson in Uniformity for Communicators

A driver going 55 miles per hour needs about 280 feet of stopping distance — almost the length of a soccer field. So, if you’re trying to communicate to highway drivers, you have just a few seconds to get across important messages like this one:

The driver of any vehicle shall not turn such vehicle so as to proceed in the opposite direction unless such movement can be made in safety and without interfering with other traffic.

No vehicle shall be turned so as to proceed in the opposite direction upon any curve, or upon the approach to or near the crest of a grade, where such vehicle cannot be seen by the driver of any other vehicle approaching from either direction within five hundred feet.

Try posting that on a road sign.

Luckily, the people who design traffic signs came up with a solution that allows them to translate the full meaning of those two paragraphs into this:

This sign works — and works quickly — because it sticks to a few important rules.

On traffic signs, red always means “no” or “stop.” A vertical rectangle is always used to tell a driver about a regulation. These and other rules are spelled out in a detailed document called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The MUTCD states: “Uniformity of traffic control devices is critical in highway safety.” It adds that uniformity also creates efficiencies, helping public agencies simplify maintenance and control costs.

Of course, traffic signs rely on more than shapes and colors; they use words and symbols, too. So the MUTCD includes specific guidelines for lettering, size, borders, arrows, and more.

It may seem odd for a communicator to be extolling the virtues of uniformity. Numerous laboratory experiments have found that creative messages (those that feature unusual and nonobvious solutions) get more attention, lead to positive attitudes, and are more effective at influencing behavior.

But, successful communication also relies on a certain amount of predictability. Imagine if your grocery store or your bank’s website shuffled its sections around each week. We’d spend more time searching than getting — and that’s a sure way to get your audience to stop paying attention.

Lastly, the MUTCD states that an effective “traffic control device” meets five basic requirements. It must:

• Fulfill a need
• Command attention
• Convey a clear, simple meaning
• Command respect from road users
• Give adequate time for proper response

These “rules of the road” would serve any communicator well.

By the way, the MUTCD permits use of 13 colors on road signs. Two of those are coral and light blue, which are reserved for purposes that haven’t been determined yet. (Keep an eye open for those pink traffic signs.)

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ABCs of a 21st Century Writer

Prose, Pixels and Persuasion


Start with your audience—what they know, what they need to know and how they make sense of the world.


Tight copy is the “soul of wit,” and it takes twice as long to write.


Pre-existing knowledge and conditions dictate how an audience receives messages. Incorporate context to add layers of meaning. Ignore context and risk failing to connect.


The third draft is always better than the first or second. The fifth? Not so much. Exert the right amount of effort and resist obsession.

The Greeks knew some stuff.


Beyond the prevailing zeitgeist, every corporate culture, marketplace and social media following taps into specific memories, values and language to make meaning. Persuasiveness often hinges on these.

Feedback Loops

Natural feedback signals are lost when we use any media—from writing books to broadcasting video. Many of today’s technologies, like social media, are including ways to measure audience reactions. Click-through rates, watch-times and other social media listening techniques act virtually to tell us what’s resonating and why.


Graphic design increases readability and keeps our messages relevant in fast-moving media environments.

Modern readers unconsciously judge our visual production values against everything else they encounter.


Hypertext is the most underappreciated and the most powerful writing developments in our lifetime.

Hypermedia de-clutters our prose while adding unimaginable richness to our documents. Your digital composition can unlock the world with the right hyperlinks.


Our documents are read on a myriad of screens—some are the size of matchbooks, others the size of walls. Anticipate which interfaces your audience uses to design features like graphics, audio, video and interactivity.


Compare and contrast to help delineate and distinguish.

Knowledge Management

Communication increasingly means managing information flows, platform integration and data analysis. Technology and numbers can often intimidate communicators. It shouldn’t.

Written language is a profoundly complicated technology. If you can master English, spreadsheets should be like coloring books.


Comedy is best left to professionals.

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” — Erma Bombeck


Digital communication is beautiful because we can incorporate any or all of these modes into our documents:

  • Text is great for brevity and/or complexity.
  • Video captures short attention spans.
  • Audio contains subtle cues and emotional richness.
  • Interactivity engages the mind, the will and the body.


It’s not all sunshine and lemonade. When you say something important, someone else is likely disagree.

Anticipate possible negative reactions and integrate effective responses when possible. On social media, always have strategies for dealing with negative posts. Especially learn how to deal with trolls. (Hint: Don’t feed them.)

No Trolls!


Don’t do the thinking for your audience. You’ll bore them and lose them.


I know we have to use PowerPoint. But must we use it badly?

When you use it, avoid the well-known sins that lead to glassy looks and ineffective presentations.


For interest, create questions in the minds of your audience; questions they must answer for themselves.

For clarity, answer the questions your audience might ask if they could.


If it needs to be said, say it again and then say it again.

Then say it a different way. Then repeat it. Then recap, referencing the first three times you said it.

Cut a groove into an audience’s memory that isn’t easily erased.


Quick turnarounds, instantaneous responses and on-the-go content development are creating pressures for communicators to be faster and faster.

It’s amazing and exhilarating to open a mobile app and produce a fully formatted video that posts 5 minutes after initial inception. It’s also exhausting and sometimes reckless to move at the pace afforded by these platforms.

Tap the brakes for better content.


Impatience can cause an initiative to fail on the launch pad.

Measure the moment, looking for what the Greeks called kairos (the fullness of time, the pregnant moment). This is especially important with campaigns where information builds upon itself or momentum is critical.

Unaddressed Issues

When you choose not to directly address issues that are important to your audience, it’s often helpful to signal that you’ve made a conscious choice and are not guilty of ignorance or oversight.


Professionals are often required to slip into their client’s voice rather than to find their own.

We all have a style. We just have to open our mouth and sing to find it.


I love words. You love words. The right word is a delicious morsel; the crafted sentence a feast.

It may seem that technology is pushing words aside, but fear not. Words accomplish things AI never will. In the hands of artisans (smiths), words reach into our memories, touch our hearts and create our possible worlds.


Always avoid blue jokes and references (see Laughter).



Zig when others Zag.

If everyone is using digital, it may be time to mail a beautifully crafted, glossy print piece.

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Culture Uncentered

Workers Share a Culture Even if They Don't Share a Place

Editor’s Note: We first published this article in 2016, long before Covid-19 realities pushed so many more of us into remote working.

Culture (kuhl-cher) n., the way we do things around here

“Corporate culture” can be tough to define. We talk about it. Sometimes we try to change it. Sometimes we try to strengthen it. But it’s not always clear what “it” is. The essence of corporate culture is well captured in a scene from the 1992 film A Few Good Men. During a cross examination, Naval lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, has this exchange with a witness, Cpl. Jeffrey Barnes, played by Noah Wyle.

Kaffee:  Corporal, would you turn to the page in this book that says where the mess hall is, please.

Barnes: Well, Lt. Kaffee, that’s not in the book, sir.

Kaffee: You mean to say in all your time at Gitmo you’ve never had a meal?

Barnes: No, sir. Three squares a day, sir.

Kaffee: I don’t understand. How did you know where the mess hall was if it’s not in this book?

Barnes: Well, I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time, sir.

An organization’s culture is often thought of as “the way we do things around here.” But what happens when you take away the “here”? What if there is no crowd to follow? What if there is no single chow time?

Is the “Workplace” Still a Thing?

We’re living in an economy where more and more work is performed by individuals on their own time, from their own place, and in collaboration with others they might never meet in person. In such an economy, what is a “workplace”? What do words like culture, organization, workforce, or even employee mean?

Think of Uber. Founded in 2012, Uber touts itself as Everyone’s Private Driver™. But Uber doesn’t own any cars. Instead, it connects riders and drivers through a mobile app. According to its website, the number of Uber drivers has grown to about 175,000 in less than three years. That’s more people than The Walt Disney Company employs.1 It’s an enormous workforce, but since Uber drivers drive their own cars and work where and when they want, does Uber have a culture?

I’ve used Uber a handful of times and the experience has always been about the same. The driver shows up quickly (usually before I’m ready to go). The car is clean, and the driver is polite and as talkative (or not talkative) as any other driver I’ve ever hired. So, there must be something going on that helps create a consistent customer experience. How do they do it?

Uber may be an extreme example of a virtual workforce, a thriving experiment of the new, technology-empowered “sharing economy”. But well before Uber arrived on the scene, a growing number of companies were allowing their employees to work outside the office walls.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the number of full-time employees who work from home for someone other than themselves rose 79 percent between 2005 and 2012. That puts the number of remote workers at an estimated 3.2 million people.

But that’s just the full-timers. According to a study by the Freelancers Union & Elance-oDesk, more than one-third of the American workforce is freelance. These “freelancers” include temporary workers and so-called “moonlighters” who hold down full-time jobs and do independent work (like the NFL player who drives for Uber during the off-season).

While not every company is using freelancers or allowing its employees to work remotely today, like Yahoo! and Hewlett Packard, we might expect more companies to try this approach. (Amazon is reportedly developing an Uber-like app known as “On My Way” that would allow anybody to pick up packages from central locations and deliver them to their final destinations.2) If the trend continues, we’ll have a world in which work culture and workplace have an increasingly tenuous relationship. But this doesn’t necessarily mean organizational culture will simply vanish or that water cooler talk will stop just because there’s no actual water cooler.

6 Ways to Promote a Way of Doing Things Around “Here”

Thanks to social media and other online tools, groups that live around the world can share a “way of doing things” even though they rarely — or never — meet face-to-face. (Have you tried to read a teenager’s comments on Instagram lately?) Whether at the most traditional organizations or the most virtual, culture relies on strong ideas that become accepted and shared by the group. Here are a few important things an employer can do to guide and influence a productive “way of doing things around here” even when there’s no “here” there.

1. Write it down.

What core values, beliefs, or actions make you successful? What do your people do; how do they do it; why do they do it? Why do your customers like you? Why do people want to work with you? Culture can be effectively transmitted through stories. Is there a story that captures the essence of your organization? Answer these questions and write it down.

2.  Appeal to the right people.

Uber has a very simple, very clear appeal that they repeat over and over to drivers: Be your own boss. That’s going to appeal to people who are independent and driven. Know the kind of person you want as part of your team. Know what appeals to those people and craft a message that will resonate with them.

3. Use social media.

Based on their research, Gallup says having a “a best friend at work” is one of the 12 traits of highly productive workgroups.³ People are social and working from home or outside a traditional office can be isolating. You can help create and strengthen bonds among team members by using any of the free and easy-to-access social media platforms that are available. You don’t have to moderate these interactions. You may simply want to facilitate online connections.

4. Communicate with the team.

Broad-based communications can help remind individuals that they are a part of something bigger. You don’t want to burden your people with superfluous, irrelevant messages, but you do want to remind them, from time to time, how they fit in and how their work supports the whole.

5. Bring them together.

If you can, have a get-together at least once a year. If you can’t bring your people together in real space, consider bringing them together in real time. Try webcasts, chats, and the fun new app Periscope. Again, there are many good social media tools that can serve as a platform for huddling up your far-flung teams.

6. Identify virtual mentors.

You may do this formally or informally. If you point out the successful, experienced people — the living examples of the culture you want — people new to the group will naturally seek out their guidance. Sometimes it’s just easier to ask a peer for advice than a manager.



² “Amazon’s Next Delivery Drone: You”, Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2015


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