Birds Sing from the Heart: How Bob James Writes

Bob James is the Chief Storyteller and owner at Goodly, a writing and communications agency in Washington D.C. Bob is a graduate of Georgetown University, and holds a Master’s Degree in Philosophy, while I only have a mere Bachelor’s of Science. (That is, I have a B.S. in BS from BSU; even Bob can’t say that!)

Erik recently invited me to discuss “My Writing Process,” a dead-horse topic if there ever were one.

But I’ll beat that horse anyway, just because Erik asked. Here you go:

Bob James on how he writes and his writing processWhere I find ideas. The wellsprings of ideas are many and inexhaustible. The ones I return to again and again are:

  • Other writers—from the sublime (e.g., Emerson, Faulkner, Sartre, Updike) to the ridiculous (names withheld)
  • Pop culture (songs, movies, TV shows, blogs, etc.)
  • Current events (AKA La Comédie humaine)
  • Memories, dreams, reflections 
  • Other people’s observations (Take my wife’s. Please.)

How I write the ideas down. My secret sauce is no secret. Writing isn’t thinking. It isn’t even writing. “Writing is revision,” as Tracy Kidder says. “Write once, edit five times,” David Ogilvy urged office mates.” Priceless advice. Your fifth draft may not excel, but it will beat your first by a long shot. And, as you edit five times, be like the birds. An ornithologist mentioned during a recent NPR interview that birds’ voice boxes are lodged deep within their chests. “Birds sing from the heart,” she said. You should, too. Readers like it and will respond accordingly.

How I assure quality. Copy’s never error free, but I try hard to check my facts. In fact, I often spend more time fact-checking sources than writing and editing. (Don’t hem and haw: fact-checking is enlightening.) And I proofread, both twice before I hit publish and twice afterwards. Boring task, but my reputation’s on the line.

How I spread ideas. Outposting has helped aggrandize my scribblings more than any of my other activities. Adman Gary Slack advises clients to invest in “other people’s audiences” more than their own. He’s 100% on the money.

For more advice about writing. If you’re hungry for sound advice, listen to Paul Simon and Chuck Close discuss the creative process in a podcast for The Atlantic. You’ll learn more than you will by reading 50 how-to books, with these four noteworthy exceptions:

Oh yeah, don’t forget No Bullshit Social Media.

 

Why I Left Social Media Marketing

I used to be somebody. I was kind of a big deal. Well, almost a big deal. I would sometimes go to social media conferences and hear my name whispered as I walked by.

“Hey, that’s Erik Deckers.”

And unlike high school, it was never followed by “LET’S KICK HIS ASS!”

I did book signings. I spoke around the country. I even got paid for it. It was pretty cool.

I was one of the early digital and social media marketing pioneers. I started blogging in 1997. I started doing digital marketing in 1998. I joined Twitter in 2007. And I wrote some of the first books on personal branding and social media marketing.

I’ve been blessed that a lot of people have used my books to make big changes to their companies and to their lives. I’ve heard from people who followed just a few of the steps in Branding Yourself and landed an internship or even a new job. A woman who has since become a very good friend first got in touch with Kyle Lacy and me to say she had followed our LinkedIn chapter and gotten three job interviews in three weeks.

I’ve heard from others who used No Bullshit Social Media to convince their bosses to let them start doing social media marketing for their company, and now they’re heading up the company’s entire social media efforts.

But social media got crowded. It got filled up with newbies, fakes, and charlatans who thought they were social media marketers because they used Facebook, or bought thousands of Twitter followers.

The industry was overrun by rampaging hordes of ex-bartenders and college interns who didn’t have years of marketing experience. And I spent so much time trying to convince people of the importance of it that my client work was slipping.

So I stopped doing social media marketing, and focused on content marketing. It was a hard decision, but I could see social media was about to be completely ruined by marketers, who were taking it over like the killer ant scene in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

[Seriously. Launch any new social media tool, and the marketers swarm all over it like that Russian dude at the end. Don’t believe me? Google “Snapchat for marketers.”]

At the time, content marketing was still fairly new, because most of the practitioners were still professional writers, videographers, photographers, and podcasters. We hadn’t yet been taken over by scribblers who thought “literally” meant the opposite of literally.

I miss the good old days.
Google Results of Snapchat for Marketers
I worked to hone my skills as a writer. My partner, Paul, handled the social media marketing for our clients, and I read, studied, trained, and practiced to produce the best work we were capable of.

During this time, I co-authored a new book on content marketing, ghostwrote a book with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and even started ghostwriting the autobiography of a former U.S. Congressman.

For the last three years, I’ve kept my head down, and focused on my craft. I’ve studied several favorite authors. I’m revisiting my speechwriting roots, and learning how slam poetry can influence my work. I even spent three months as the Writer-In-Residence at the Jack Kerouac House here in Orlando, beating out nearly 300 people from around the world for the coveted spot.

It’s paying off. I’ve written several short stories, made it halfway through my novel, participated in several literary readings around Central Florida, spoken at a number of writing conferences, and contributed to different literary publications and events.

My efforts have also helped my clients. The content marketing work we do is bringing them more traffic and leads, and we do it by offering some of the best business writing available. We’re writing stuff people like to read, and getting people to share it online. Rather than churn out as much mediocre content as we can, we focus on high-quality writing.

I won’t lie though. I’ve missed being in front of an audience. I’ve missed meeting new people in new cities. So I’ve decided to shake the dust off my shoulders, rub the sand from my eyes, and re-enter the world of personal branding and public promotion.

Starting in August, I’ll write more frequently on this blog again, and booking more conference speaking slots, especially around my new home state, Florida. I hope to see you around.

Plagiarism is the Writer’s Cardinal Sin

This whole Melania Trump plagiarism flap shouldn’t be a big deal. I think if it weren’t for the fact that it’s the Republican National Convention, we wouldn’t have even heard about it.

It’s never a big deal any other time a public figure has been caught plagiarizing. Sure, it makes the news, but most people could not care any less. But to creative professionals, especially writers, this is yyy-uge.

News analysts reported that Trump’s speech was 7% similar to Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech. That may not seem like much, but by college academic standards, that 7% can get you an F in your class, and even get you thrown out of school.

A PhD friend of mine commented on my Facebook status yesterday that she normally checks her students’ papers with Grammarly’s plagiarism checker. She ran a quick check on the two speeches, and found that roughly 7 – 8% of Melania’s speech triggered the plagiarism alert, which would have resulted in an F for the paper. Other friends in academia said they have failed students, including those in Masters programs, for 7%.

Some people are dismissing Melania’s plagiarism as “just common words.” That anyone could have used these words, and that we’re making a big deal out of nothing about these “common supportive phrases.” They think it’s a complete coincidence that the same common words and phrases discussing the same ideas were assembled in that same order.

Let’s take politics out of it for a moment. Forget that this is the wife of the Republican presidential candidate.

As a professional writer and adjunct professor, I can tell you that, common words or not, this is still plagiarism. When you take a series of words and string them together in a particular order, no one else may string them together in that order, unless they cite you as a source.

Even failure to cite your sources is enough to fail your paper.

Ernest Hemingway: Common Words Used Uncommonly

Ernest HemingwayOne of my favorite Hemingway short stories, Big Two-Hearted River, is filled with common words. It’s 8,015 words long, and written at a 4th grade reading level. There are no unusual words, and there’s only one character, Nick, who’s going camping and fishing. Two pretty common activities with common jargon. Here’s my favorite excerpt from the story:

Nick was hungry.

He did not believe he had ever been hungrier He opened and emptied a can at pork and beans and a can of spaghetti into the frying pan

“I’ve got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I’m willing to carry it, Nick said.

His voice sounded strange in the darkening woods. He did not speak again.

He started a fire with some chunks of pine he got with the ax from a stump. Over the fire he stuck a wire grill, pushing the four legs down into the ground with his boot. Nick put the frying pan and a can of spaghetti on the grill over the flames. He was hungrier. The beans and spaghetti warmed. Nick stirred them and mixed them together. They began to bubble, making little bubbles that rose with difficulty to the surface- There was a good smell. Nick got out a bottle of tomato catchup and cut four slices of bread. The little bubbles were coming faster now. Nick sat down beside the fire and lifted the frying pan off. He poured about half the contents out into the tin plate. It spread slowly on the plate. Nick knew it was too hot. He poured on some tomato catchup. He knew the beans and spaghetti were still too hot. He looked at the fire, then at the tent, he was not going to spoil it all by burning his tongue.

No big words, very few 3-syllable words. In fact, he used just 124 different words. But Hemingway could take those 124 words and make cooking a camp dinner one of the most interesting stories you’ll read all day.

Hemingway’s use of common words is not the issue; we’re all able to use them. I could even write a story that only uses these 124 words. The problem is, I can’t put them in that order.

I can’t use the phrase “‘I’ve got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I’m willing to carry it,’ Nick said.” without either giving him full credit or suffering the wrath of academics and literary types. I can’t even change a couple of words and present it as mine.

That’s plagiarism.

To most of us who actually care about this — the academics, the literati, the word nerds — it doesn’t matter who plagiarized. The fact is, it was done, and it’s being dismissed as unimportant by people who don’t realize the importance of intellectual property.

Probably because they’ve never had their creations stolen for someone else’s benefit.

This is What Theft Looks Like

No Burglars signThis is an important issue to me, because I’ve been plagiarized on three separate occasions, all by newspaper professionals. Two editors, one publisher. Two Canadians, one American. Three people who financially benefited from something I do for very little money.

Three people who worked in a profession where there are only a few important rules:

  1. Don’t steal shit.
  2. Don’t make shit up.

That’s it. Those are two of the most important rules in journalism, and violating them is a career ender.

Of the three thieves — and they are thieves — the American editor and the Canadian publisher lost their jobs. The publisher lost his membership in the Alberta Press Council, and may have even stepped down as the president of the Strathmore and District Chamber of Commerce. The American newspaper editor will never have a job in newspapers again.

You can Google both their names, and their sins still follow them, five years later.

In the world of creativity, especially its written form, plagiarism is the cardinal sin. Of all the Thou Shalt Nots in the world, it is the Thou-Shalt-Nottiest.

Bottom line, it doesn’t matter who did it. I think it was an error of process, not malicious theft. If I had to guess, it was a speechwriter who watched a lot of different convention speeches by candidates’ wives, took notes, and used the phrasing without remembering where it came from.

(UPDATE: It turns out, Melania read some phrases from people she liked, including Michelle Obama. The speechwriter, Meredith McIver took notes, and used them in the speech. Then, she said she never checked Michelle Obama’s speeches to see if the phrasing had been used before. So, not malicious, just careless.)

Because despite what she said, Melania didn’t write this herself. Everyone who gets on that stage gets vetted, ghosted, and edited. There are so many people with so many fingers in every pie, nothing is written by a single individual with no oversight.

But worse, much worse, is the attitude that this isn’t a big deal. That the media is making too big of a fuss. Or that the Obamas did it eight years ago, so that makes this one less bad, or even acceptable.

Politics aside, this is never acceptable. Whether you’re an apologist or a grubby-fingered troll digging up dirt on the other side, plagiarism and theft of ideas is never acceptable.

If you have never created something and had it stolen, you can’t understand why this is a hot button issue for so many of us. As a writer whose books are regularly pirated, as a journalist whose columns are pilfered, I believe this is the one line that writers of integrity should not cross.

Do not justify the sin, regardless of who committed it. There are no excuses, you can’t buy indulgences, and it should never, ever be waved off as a staggering coincidence of “common words.”

Erik Interviewed on The Business of Story Podcast

I think I could just build a media career by appearing on every Jay Baer podcast he and his company produces.

Earlier this week, my interview on The Business Of Story was released — my third interview on Jay Baer’s third podcast. (You can hear my interview, “Top Tips from a Humor Columnist on How to Tell Better Brand Stories” here.)

Erik Deckers Teaser for The Business of Story podcastPark Howell, a content marketing and storytelling professional, interviews different writers and storytellers, talking about to use proper storytelling in the business world. He’s interviewed screenwriters, film makers, editors, directors, makeup artists, and voice over actors (including Dick Orkin, the creator of Chicken Man, which I used to love!)

We had a chance to talk about humor writing, and how it can be used in the business world. Some of the topics we discussed include:

  • Why infusing your writing with humor will improve it dramatically
  • How to break down comedic theory to make it accessible and useable
  • Why you can absolutely can learn to be funny
  • How stories are more approachable and more memorable with comedy
  • Why some are hesitant to use humor in the workplace, but it is a misplaced fear
  • How to absorb lessons from great fiction writers

Anyway, give the show a listen and let me know what you think. And be sure to check out Jay’s other podcasts for more great marketing information.

Beware Mark Schaefer’s Blueberry Shock

Mark Schaefer alarmed content marketers two years ago when he warned of the impending content shock. The idea that the amount of information on the Internet was going to grow 600 percent between 2014 and 2020.

In other words, if we designate the amount of information online in 2014 as “one Internet,” we will have six more Internets of information by 2020. We doubled in “Internets” from 2014 to 2015, and again in 2017.

Except, we as humans only watch, read, or hear 10 hours worth of content each day. That’s reading articles for work, listening to the radio during our commute, and watching TV or reading at home.

But the amount of information available will continue to grow, most of it bad to mediocre, and all the good stuff will be buried.

Hence the shock.

What does this have to do with blueberries?

Mark Schaefer's blueberry harvest. This is when the blueberry shock began!

Photo by Mark Schaefer

Everything!

Mark Schaefer posted the following on Facebook today:

This is the entire 2016 harvest from my three blueberry bushes. This might seem sad until you learn this is a 100% productivity gain over last year.‪ #‎Winning‬

Winning, indeed.

While Mark laments that he only has two blueberries, he also realizes that he has, in fact, doubled his harvest from last year. If he can continue this trend, he’ll double it again next year, and have four blueberries. And eight the following year.

He’ll be able to celebrate 2020 — the year the Internet will have grown by 600% — with 32 blueberries. That’s nearly 2/3 of a pound of blueberries.

That’s when things will start to go terribly wrong.

There’s an old saying that if you double a dollar 20 times, you’ll have $1 million.

If Mark’s blueberry trend continues, in 20 years, he’ll have 1 million blueberries — 1,048,576, to be exact.

Satirical chart of blueberry growth representing blueberry shock; I adapted it from Mark's original content shock chart.

If we assume an average of 50 blueberries in a cup, and 4 cups of blueberries equals 1.5 pounds, Mark will have 31,457 pounds of blueberries by the year 2035. That’s 15.72 tons of blueberries.

And while that number is only .0055% of the total US production of blueberries in 2015 (563.2 million pounds), it’s still a staggering number.

Will this have a significant impact on overall blueberry prices? What sorts of steps must we as a blueberry-consuming public take? Will his friends and neighbors be flooded with buckets and shopping bags filled with blueberries mysteriously left on their porches in the night?

We need to be prepared for the coming blueberry shock. While this won’t reach Mark’s staggering growth of information, this is an issue we must face nevertheless.

As a leading consumer of blueberry muffins and pancakes, I urge food professionals everywhere to begin to examine how you can deal with the pending blueberry shock, and take steps to incorporate their use in everyday cooking — from bread to soup to desserts.

Additional markets should be explored as well: blueberry-based skincare products. Alternative fuels. Even blueberry milk. (If almond milk is a thing, then blueberry milk can be!)

Thankfully, we have time. We won’t have any major problems for another 15 years, in 2031, when Mark’s blueberry bushes produce 65,536 blueberries, or .983 tons. Hopefully by then, our blueberry infrastructure will be in place, ready to receive the increased blueberry shock.

(Note: This is all satire. I’m also a humor writer. Please don’t think I actually took this seriously. Although I probably put more time into it than I should have.)

“Write Good Content” is Bad Advice

If you tell people to write good content, you’re part of the problem

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen “write good content” in yet another Five “Secrets” of Content Marketing article. I saw it again recently from someone who ought to know better — someone who claimed to be a content marketer specializing in a particular industry.

First, these aren’t secrets. Stop calling them secrets. Natives in the Amazon rainforest who have never met outsiders know them. Call them tips. Call them ideas. Call them blindingly-obvious-insights-that-even-a-five-year-old-understands. But don’t call them secrets.

Second, this so-called secret isn’t even making it to the top of the list. This is The Most Fundamental principle of content marketing, and you put it third on a five item list? When you’re building a house, you don’t put up the doors and windows first. You lay the foundation. You create a strong base that will support the rest of the house. Writing well needs to be the foundation of all your content marketing.

At the Start/Finish line of the Indy 500 2016; telling people to write good content is like telling race car drivers to drive fast

Remember, if you ain’t first, you’re last.

Third, stop telling people to do things they should be doing anyway. These are the fundamental principles people build their entire profession on. Telling them to do it, and then calling it a secret, is an insult to the professionals who actually do that work.

If you’re a writer, you should write well anyway.

If you’re a race car driver, you should drive fast anyway.

If you’re an accountant, you should balance your accounts well anyway.

No one tells an accountant, “Secret #3: Be sure to balance the books.” No one tells a plumber “Super Duper Plumbing Secret #19: Make sure your pipes don’t leak.”

So why would you tell someone to write well?

Writing well is not an option. It’s not an item on a checklist. It’s not something that, had you not mentioned it, they would have purposely half-assed it.

Basically, if you’re telling people to “write good content,” you’re part of the problem. You’re part of the ruination and downfall of the content marketing industry

If You Get Angry About People Who Are Late, Maybe You’re the Problem

If you’re regularly late to meetings, you’re a terrible person who has no regard for human life, and you deserve everything bad that happens to you.

I don’t know what has crawled up people’s backsides lately, but I’m seeing variations on this theme from people who are tired of being kept waiting during meetings, while some insensitive clod blithely shows up whenever it suits them.

Greg Savage got the ball rolling five years ago with his blog post, No, You Are Not Running Late, You Are Rude and Selfish, and I’ve seen it reposted ad nauseum on Facebook and Twitter.

Angry Screaming Guy

If this is how you approach your business relationships, is it any wonder people don’t like you?

Recently, I saw someone tweet that people who are habitually late are either stupid, arrogant, or both. Then he included the hashtag #respect.

I responded, “I would think #respect also means not calling people arrogant or stupid.”

“Not if they’re habitually late,” he responded.

Talk about selfish. My time is important. My time is valuable. I don’t like to be kept waiting.

You’re not inventing a cure for cancer, you’re having a meeting. If your time is so valuable, you shouldn’t have scheduled it in the first place.

Maybe It’s You

I know it’s a symptom of the current political discourse, but I’m still surprised at people’s all-or-nothing view of humanity, elevating the smallest of transgressions into overly dramatic statements about their value as people.

Either you show up on time, or you’re selfish.

Either you show up on time, or you’re stupid.

Either you show up on time, or you’re irresponsible and you make poor life choices.

If you have this kind of attitude about your tardy colleagues, maybe you’re the problem. If you’re this uptight and easily prone to anger, look at the priorities in your life. Do you value timeliness over everything else? Would you rather have a person who shows up five minutes early to a meeting or someone who’s pleasant and a joy to be around?

Because it seems like you sacrificed the latter in favor of the former.

Yes, timeliness is something we should all strive for, and I agree that it’s frustrating to be kept waiting. But I also don’t foam at the mouth and call the other person an irresponsible turd when they’re 10 minutes late. I pull out my phone or laptop and get work done.

When you say the other person is chronically late because they don’t value or respect you, you’re probably right. They don’t respect you. They don’t even like you. You’re not a nice person.

Because you call them rude, selfish, stupid, and arrogant.

Why would anyone want to be around you at all, let alone get there on time to spend every possible minute with you? If people are regularly late to meetings with you, they’re not the problem, you are.

Try Extending Grace to the Other Person

I’ve been stood up for meetings by friends who forgot. I’ve had people go to the wrong location. I’ve had people who were involved in a car accident. And I’ve done all those things myself.

And when either of us were in the wrong, we apologized, the other person forgave, and we rescheduled. We didn’t passive-aggressively rant on social media about how “some people” were rude idiots. We didn’t trash the other person to our friends. We went about our lives and tried again later.

In short, we didn’t tear someone else down in order to make ourselves look good. We extended grace, we forgave, and we treated the other person with decency.

If you don’t like it when people are late, ask them about it. Don’t berate them, don’t call them names, and don’t rant about it online. Ask them if they’re aware it’s a problem. Explain to them how it frustrates you. Ask them to be on time in the future.

If they still can’t do it, cut them off. Stop meeting with them, stop inviting them to things, or start lying about the time, and tell them the meeting is 15 – 30 minutes earlier.

But try to be a grown-up about it. There are worse things in life to be, and worse problems in the world to stew about, like homelessness, starvation, and poverty. When you solve a couple of those, then you can be pissy about other people’s time management.

Until then, just get over yourself. Your missing 10 minutes aren’t that important.

Photo credit: B_Heyer (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Networking 101: How to Make a Solid Email Introduction

The key to good networking is not only meeting new people, but to serve as a referral source for others. But it doesn’t work to just tell someone, “you should call Bob. Tell him I sent you.” That’s a cheap cop-out, and those calls are bound to fail.

Branding Yourself cover image

Just a little tip from our book. I find myself still using this, even six years later.

For one thing, Bob is immediately going to be suspicious of anyone who calls him and starts name dropping. So he’s wary as you explain what you’re looking for.

Plus, he’s not emotionally invested. Sure, I told you to call Bob, but Bob doesn’t know why. And Bob isn’t going to trust you enough to say,”Oh, well if Erik sent you, you must be wonderful!” Bob needs me to tell him that you’re wonderful.

This is where the email introduction comes in. And if you’re a good networker, this is how you’ll introduce people. It’s quick, it’s effective, and it’s certainly a lot cheaper than inviting them both to lunch.

A good email introduction to people involves three things:

  1. An explanation of how you know each person.
  2. An explanation of how and why they can help each other.
  3. Some enthusiasm. You shouldn’t just connect people for the sake of making a connection. Connect them because you think they can actually do some good for each other.

Here’s how that email introduction should look.

Bob, meet Rachel Wentzel. Rachel is a direct mail marketer, and has helped a lot of companies with their own direct mail campaign. I’ve known her for several years, after she helped me with my own business.

Rachel, meet Bob Heintzel. Bob owns a marketing agency that specializes in digital strategies for B2B companies. I’ve worked with Bob for five years and watched him create some effective strategies that helped his clients excel.

Bob and I were talking over coffee today, and he mentioned that he had a client who wanted to launch a catalog campaign, and I immediately thought of Rachel.

I think that together, the two of you can help each other out, and make great things happen for each other and for Bob’s client. I’ll leave it to you to go forward from here. Good luck!

Let’s break it down

In this example, I’ve given a background of each person, and what I think the other person needs to know. I’ve also explained how I know them, so as to add some credibility to my recommendation.

I also explained the inspiration for making the introduction — Bob has a client who needs a catalog campaign. I do this because I can’t wait for them to figure it out themselves. Bob may find a direct mail provider before he ever sits down with Rachel, but I don’t want that. So I make it obvious.

Then, I step back and let them take the reins; they don’t need me for this. They can figure out a time to meet for coffee or lunch, have a nice conversation, learn more about each other, and then hopefully Bob will ask for assistance with his new client. If not, hopefully Rachel will remember to.

Finally, when it comes to an introduction like this, Rachel should take the initiative and reach out to Bob first. Why? Because she needs something Bob has, a paying client. Bob may not be in as much of a rush, so Rachel needs to take the first step, rather than waiting for Bob to clear his calendar.

Successful networkers aren’t known by the number of people in their Contacts list. Successful networkers are known by the number of referrals they make. Don’t just collect people in your email list or LinkedIn network. Do some actual good in the world and make email introductions between people you know. Explain how you know them, why they should know each other, and be enthusiastic about it.

Three Security Tips for Freelancers

This is a guest post written by Cassie Phillips, a blogger with Secure Thoughts, an Internet security company.

Maintaining a successful freelance career can be difficult. Oftentimes, the biggest difficulty is finding clients who are in need of your services and willing to pay a reasonable price. There’s another difficulty that is sometimes overlooked: staying secure on the Internet.

With money being moved between multiple accounts and contact with numerous clients, continual daily access to the Internet can be dangerous if certain security procedures are not put in place. To protect yourself against hackers, identity thieves, and other online threats, here are a few security tips for freelancers that can help protect you and your money.

1. Protecting Private Data (and Money) with a VPN

Woman working on LaptopUnlike traditional jobs, freelancers cannot expect to earn a steady income. There is no single employer who is going to regularly deposit money into your bank account. On the contrary, freelancers are likely to earn money from a myriad number of sources, processed through a variety of accounts. From private bank accounts to PayPal to Google Wallet, a freelancer’s money is always flowing from one account into another. Protecting the flow of your money and any associated data is of utmost importance.

Remember that securing your finances on the Internet is not as easy as making a few clicks. If this is all you do, then you remain in an unsafe position where a hacker could see your financial information, hack into your computer or accounts, and steal your identity or just simply empty whatever accounts he can get his hands on. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is the key to preventing this from happening.

A VPN creates a tunnel between your computer and a third-party server elsewhere. When you access the Internet using a VPN, your data is encrypted and your IP address is hidden. When it comes out of the third-party server, it will appear as if your computer is accessing the Internet from that origin point.

In other words, your server and your connection point remain invisible so you can remain anonymous. However, not all VPNs are created equally. Some have different price tags; others offer different speeds, and others still host various numbers of third-party servers. Do your research to ensure you’re selected the best of the best.

2. Using Trusted and Secure Freelance Contracting Services

In addition to securing your Internet connection, you need to ensure that you are working with trustworthy individuals and companies and secure websites. There are many freelance contracting services available on the Internet serving different types of freelancers. No matter which one you choose, however, you should always make sure that is a reputable service that has not been hacked. There are several ways to do this:

Use Trustworthy Services: If you’ve been freelancing for even a short while, you may be familiar with some of the larger and more trustworthy freelancing services on the Internet, such as Upwork, Elance, Guru and Freelancer. If you stick with the large and trusted services, you will be safer than looking for fringe sites that are unknown and possibly dangerous.

Check for HTTPS: Because freelancing services are responsible for collecting personal data for freelancer’s profiles, facilitating private communications, and shipping money, you need to make sure that the site is secure. One simple way to do this is to look at the URL and make sure that it begins with “HTTPS” rather than “HTTP.” The “S” stands for secure and means that there are layers of encryption being used to protect users on the site compared to the unsecure alternative. Take a look at the address bar in the screenshot for UpWork’s home page and notice the “https” in green:

UpWork's Home Page https

Note the https in the address bar. That means this site is secure. (credit: UpWork’s front page screenshot)

Use Google: If a freelance site is using “HTTP” rather than “HTTPS,” double check its trustworthiness and reputability. You can do this with a simple Google search. Simply type in the name of the service followed by words like “review,” “spam,” “scam” or “hack” to see if anything alarming pops up. For example, if there are numerous reviewers claiming that the site has been hacked or is vulnerable to a hack, avoid that service.

3. Maintaining a Secure Virtual Workspace

There are a few more things you can do to maintain security as a freelancer such as adding a few more layers of protection to your virtual workspace. A firewall will alert you when intruders are trying to access your computer or when your computer is trying to do things without being asked. Anti-spyware or anti-virus software will scan your computer regularly to watch for malware. And a password vault, like 1Password can let you create complex passwords, but store them so you don’t have to remember them all.

These are only a few of things that you need to do to ensure you remain safe and secure as a freelancer. There are certainly other ways to protect yourself. What do you do to keep yourself safe as a freelancer?

As a freelancer, Cassie learned quickly that internet security is a must. She enjoys sharing her knowledge with others because, let’s face it, freelancers don’t make much money and they need to protect their equipment as much as possible!

Photo credit: Moleshko (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Why I’m Decimating My Twitter Account

Last year, my friend and co-author, Kyle Lacy, pissed off thousands of people when he blew up his entire Twitter account, unfollowed nearly everyone he was following, and then slowly started following back the essential people.

I never noticed.

My Twitter was so full of junk and noise that I never noticed that he re-followed me. (He did! I checked. Shut up.)

Kyle’s problem, he told me, was that he was following so many people — close to 60,000 — who weren’t saying anything useful, it was clogging up his Twitter feed. He also admitted — reluctantly — that he hadn’t properly used Twitter lists to keep track of different groups of people.

So his only option was the nuclear one.

Thousands of people unfollowed him, upset that he unfollowed them, and he’s only following 1,500+ people right now. But he’s got a better handle on his Twitter feed than he’s had since he joined in 2008. He had over 50,000 followers, and he’s now down to 36,000+.

I’ve been thinking about Kyle’s nuclear option lately, especially as I’ve been looking at my general Twitter feed each morning, and it’s filled with noise, chatter, and completely useless garbage.

It’s motivational quotes, reminders to download a new ebook, more motivational quotes, invitations to webinars, articles about how high achievers who are not me achieve greatness, a #hashtag #filled #tweet, the latest Mashable article, and more motivational quotes.

The signal-to-noise ratio on Twitter is terrible. It’s like trying to find a radio station in the middle of the desert. There’s a lot of static, but no music.

It’s gotten worse as Twitter changed its algorithm, expanding on their “While You Were Away” feature. They want you to see the tweets they think you will appreciate.

I don’t. These new tweets are all terrible. All of them. (Except for @VeryLonelyLuke. That guy’s hilarious.)

So how can I reduce the noise? How can I restore some semblance of usefulness to my general Twitter stream?

Checking under the hood: I think I see your problem

I plugged my Twitter account into ManageFlitter to see if I could figure out the problem.

The problem was a whole bunch of people with between 50,0000 – 1 million followers, evenly split between people who were following me and not following me. There were about 3,000 people out of the 14,000 people I was following.

I even hid verified accounts from the mix, so I wasn’t including celebrities or news organizations.

What I was left with were the self-published authors and social media “experts” who yo-yo follow others to artificially inflate their accounts.

Filthy rotten spammers” (FRS), as I like to call them.

FRSes will follow thousands of people, get a few thousand follow-backs, then unfollow everyone, and start all over. They do this to get past Twitter’s follower limit and grow their accounts by leaps and bounds.

You can easily spot an FRS: they have 50,000+ followers and have written a surprisingly small number of tweets.

This is how you can spot a Filthy Rotten Spammer on Twitter.

This is how you can spot a Filthy Rotten Spammer on Twitter.

The worst are the ones with more than 100,000 followers, and 150,000 tweets. These are the people who spend a few hours every day retweeting all the crap they find in their own Twitter feeds.

Seriously, some of these people send nearly 100 tweets in a day! When I checked their stream, it was retweet after retweet, with the occasional “You’re welcome!” sent to someone who thanked them for the RT. As if the FRS had done them a huge favor.

Pruning and trimming: Seeing some progress

With ManageFlitter’s help, I started unfollowing the people in the 50K-1M range who weren’t following me back.

I realized I had followed those people because they followed me first. I could tell, because as I moused over each name on ManageFlitter, their bio popped up, and I could see they weren’t someone I would normally reach out to first.

(Trust me, I don’t eagerly follow people offering yoga and vegetarian-eating tips unless we’re already friends.)

I unfollowed nearly 1200 people in an hour. I could have gone faster, but I did want to make sure I wasn’t unfollowing people I actually found interesting.

However, this wasn’t all the FRSes. I checked my Twitter feed again, and there was still a lot of crap in my stream. It was better, but not great.

I showed all the people who were following me, sorted by number of followers in descending order, and excluded all the verified accounts. This hid accounts for CNN, the New York Times, and Alyssa Milano er, I mean, Colts punter Pat McAfee. (Alyssa Milano loves baseball. Shut up.)

You can use these filters on ManageFlitter to hide people you may actually want to keep.

You can use these filters on ManageFlitter to hide people you may actually want to keep.

With this new list, I found another 500 or so people I could eliminate. Problem is, I hit ManageFlitter’s 1700-unfollowers-in-a-day limit, and have to wait for 24 hours to finish the job.

For $12/month, I get unlimited following, plus all kinds of other features, including creating white lists of high-value accounts, integrate and manage my Twitter lists, and various analytics capabilities. But I’m going finish this experiment first before I commit to it.

Initial results: Prognosis good

After my initial pruning, which took about 90 minutes, I could already see a difference in my Twitter stream. I rediscovered some old Twitter accounts that I hadn’t seen in months, including Doug Bursch, Cathy Day, and a few others.

While I’m not exploding my Twitter feed like Kyle did last year, I am going after large chunks of it and pruning off a lot of deadwood in the hopes that my network will yield a whole lot more signal than noise.

While Twitter will no longer be the conversational tool that it once was — thanks a lot, marketers and filthy rotten spammers! — it will at least be a whole lot more useful to me than it was just a few days ago.