The other night I got to thinking about a debating class I once took at the University of Wisconsin. An article on the ages-old conflict between the Arab nations and Israel spurned the memory. Like gun control and abortion, the Middle East is a debating class chestnut.

It dawned on me how important that debating course was in shaping my career as an advertising copywriter. The ability to create a compelling and fresh argument from tired tropes is paramount to good copywriting. For most clients, the benefits and solutions within their respective categories are extremely similar, if not identical. Therefore, practicing our skills on classic debating topics is highly worthwhile. (By the way, most of this paragraph has been constructed in the form of a syllogism (if/ then/ therefore), a term and concept I learned in debating class!)

I recall one assignment in particular because of how it forced me out of my comfort zone. I was asked to compose an argument for the opposite side on an issue I felt strongly about. Though I believed in a woman’s right to choose I had to argue on behalf of pro-life.

It was an infuriating exercise, inflaming my youthful passion in so many ways. Which is also why it was such a valuable lesson. Forcing me to argue on behalf of something I was ardently opposed to was and is great preparation for a career in advertising.

Since then, I’ve had to write persuasively about countless products I know nothing about or will never use –everything from enterprise software to feminine protection. At Leo Burnett, I created numerous campaigns for Phillip Morris, selling cigarettes. I worked on a pitch for an online gambling entity. I don’t drink alcohol because it nearly killed me but I’ve written national campaigns for Johnnie Walker and Anheuser Busch.

Scenarios like these are not uncommon. For many of us they represent just another tricky day in Adland. Putting aside one’s moral compass may be harder for some than others but either way the value of classic debating skills is obvious.

Final aside: Now more than ever I think the above debating exercise would benefit everyone who took it, teaching empathy. Sadly, I’m guessing many would refuse to partake calling it emotional terrorism or some such.

Author’s note: a version of this article ran last week in Reel Chicago – If you have a writing project you’d like to discuss, by all means hit me up!


One develops habits as a copywriter. For instance, I need to see what words look like in a layout to truly assess them properly. The art directors were right: a block of copy is a visual. It needs to look right. Losing a word or two in order to accommodate the visual is not compromise; it’s part of creating good copy. Seeing your words in a layout provides concrete proof that what you’ve written is right. The perfect paragraph on Word is almost never correct in situation.

This habit did not change with new technology. If anything it became more pronounced. Now I can see finished looking ads before they are produced. Ancient history, I know. It’s been years since anyone relied on marker comps to sell an ad. We all want to see the baby before its born.

Where it gets interesting for me is in other forms of writing, like this blog. While I write these words in Word, and edit the hell out of them in Word, I’ve really only created a first draft. The true test comes when I create a “new post.” Then I see the paragraphs as you would see them. Suddenly their flaws become manifest, almost like an allergic reaction. Lose this sentence. Change that word. Move the photograph down a peg. Why these things were never apparent on a white screen is a mystery to me.

Perhaps it is also a curse. Many bloggers crank out content because new content is the key to new readers. Like in a MASH unit, they sow up stories and send them to the front. The sentences bleed adverbs and are pockmarked with dot-dot-dots, suggesting the writer had no time to tie up the paragraph or suture a proper segue.

I can’t work that way. Whether it reflects in my writing or not (and it may not), I treat each story as if it will be graded by a writing professor. It’s a habit I got into a long time ago.

See what my writing can do for you: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/

Muzzling Ozzie? Not anymore.

Entertaining blabbermouth and skipper for the Chicago White Sox, Ozzie Guillen is now on Twitter. The team is also participating in a behind-the-scenes reality TV show highlighting the upcoming 2010 season.

Why am I bringing this up? Not too long ago team management would have shut down both actions as unhealthy distractions to a successful season, if not outright landmines. Given Ozzie’s propensity for making candid, sometimes asinine remarks, it seems reckless giving him a platform to vent, doesn’t it?

Maybe not. The social media genie is out of the bottle. Way out. It has changed the way people communicate: with friends, with family, with complete strangers. We are more candid and emotionally honest. We are reckless, flirty and prone to exaggerate. Our information diet has changed. As have our constitutions. We may need stronger stomachs.

Less obvious, but no less potent, are the changes social media has wrought upon companies, institutions and clubhouses. No industry or firm is immune. Not the Chicago White Sox. Not the United States Government. And certainly not yours or my advertising agency.

Public Relations is about control, internally and externally. Employees are given guidelines and talking points. Mostly we are told to be quiet. “No comment,” remains the party line in most industries, particularly advertising, where we are warned time and again about making clients and potential clients… what exactly… mad?

The age of “no comment” is over. Everyone comments. Putting a muzzle on employees suddenly seems old-fashioned. Like a chastity belt. And what good would it do anyway?

Let’s assume most everyone in your company uses at least one social network. Many of them have multiple accounts and pseudonyms. They tweet. They comment on blogs, often anonymously. And sometimes they say bad things. If an angry employee wants to vent, he or she vents, leaving HR and PR powerless to stop them.

Chaotic? Sometimes. But remember: social media has made society more open, candid and emotionally honest. Therefore, we are becoming less bothered by candid discourse, however rude and unfavorable. We get used to it. Our skin thickens. Dark secrets aren’t so dark anymore. Or secret. Ultimately, we also become more forgiving. What choice do we have?

Let’s imagine Ozzie Guillen tweets something bad about a player or his boss. (Not a stretch.) But just as his comment will quickly spread on the Internet it also loses its potency. The fire goes out before the water trucks get there. And who cares anyway? Now the first baseman is tweeting about his contract!

5 years old and already outdated.

In their book, “The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR” authors, Al & Laura Ries argue that PR has supplanted advertising as a marketing tool. The book is (or was) controversial, partly because they were right, partly because they were full of shit. News flash: It’s a moot point now. Social Media is doing to PR what PR supposedly did to advertising! Granted, The Ries’ book is about PR for clients (not companies and their employees) but the overlap is considerable. As is the vulnerability.

Another moot point? Despite 35,000 followers, Ozzie’s Twitter is a mess of pointless observations composed in broken English: Ozzie Guillen\'s Twitter

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