Archive for September, 2013

Drop the top and be happy

Here’s a column I wrote for the upcoming issue of Splash, a magazine focusing on lifestyles and people in Pensacola, Gulf Breeze and Pensacola Beach.


Next time you’re on the road, look at the people driving cars, trucks and SUVs.

Many of them will have their teeth clenched; other drivers will be simultaneously texting, smoking and cussing.

Then look at people driving convertibles with their tops down.

They will be smiling, enjoying the scenery, maybe chair-dancing to their music, and enjoying life.

Are they happy because they’re convertible people, or are they convertible people because they’re happy?

Either way, they’re enjoying life more than the typical motorist.

Yet convertible sales are dipping, another sign that Americans are becoming less fun and more uptight.

Convertibles traditionally made up 2 percent of the new automobiles sold, but now the number is dipping toward 1 percent.

Well, I’m part of this 1 percent and happy to say so.

A convertible makes even going to work feel like fun, not another daily commute. And leaving work is extra nice in a convertible because you drop the top and your troubles fly away in the breeze. It’s hard to sulk in a convertible.

Convertibles got a bad name in two ways. They used to be less safe, but now they’re much better engineered.

And every 10-cent psychologist is quick to say that a person who buys a convertible is someone having a midlife crisis, but as Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes a convertible is just a convertible.

Besides, my midlife crisis didn’t involve a convertible; it involved a Harley-Davidson and twin strippers from Sammy’s, although that’s a story for another day.

I’ve been driving convertibles most of my adult life, just as other men fish or hunt or golf or work real hard until they fall over dead.

A top-down convertible makes me Mellow Mark. I get my Required Daily Allotment of Vitamin D and enjoy life on the road despite being subjected to other motorists’ unappealing music and cigarette smoke. Even the smells aren’t all bad; I can sniff out a Kentucky Fried Chicken or a Logan’s Steakhouse much faster than someone driving a sedan with the windows closed.

Modern air-conditioning and heating systems help, too, letting me drive top-down whenever the temperature is between 60 and 95 degrees. October on the Gulf Coast is especially ideal for a convertible, dry and not too hot.

A hat helps keep the sun away, but with my bald head you could say I am hairodynamically ideal for a convertible.

(Quick quiz: How does a convertible guy know if a woman is a keeper? When she giggles and says, “I love going topless.” Vroom vroom! But hit the road — alone — if she insists that the top must be up lest her hair be disturbed.)

While there’s no such thing as a bad convertible, some convertibles definitely are better than others. Sleek German convertibles make you look dashing and sophisticated, but beware of driving them to work. Uptight bosses get jealous of employees who look like they’re enjoying life.

American-made convertibles are much less expensive to buy and maintain, and they tend to be bigger — all the better to haul around grandchildren.

Either way, get a convertible and you will soon be cruising the highway to happiness.








The old man and the birds

Here’s a piece I wrote last week for Madden Media, which publishes tour guides.

PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. — Binoculars? Check.

Four books on birds? Check.

A cane and a walker, just in case? Check.

“I’m 92,” says Alan Sheppard. “You can’t be robust forever.”

Sciatic nerve problems or not, Alan was determined to show me some of the many birds of Santa Rosa Island. He’s been a birder off and on for 80 years, ever since he got a merit badge in birding on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout.

“When I was a kid, a bird-watcher was a weird creature. Now, bird-watching has caught on,” said Alan, a retired lawyer who has lived just about his whole life in Pensacola.

Eyes wide open

Alan’s my former neighbor; I often saw him heading out in search of birds. He has 28 years on me, but I want a new hobby and I’m impressed that Alan keeps motoring along, more vital and energetic than some people much younger than he. Let’s see the mojo in this bird-watching.

Soon enough, he and I are driving toward Fort Pickens, a beautiful spot kept pristine as part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, which has attracted some 345 species of birds since 1965.

First, however, we cruise through Villa Sabine, a residential area that is a mishmash of architectural styles. Vacant waterfront lots draw many birds, and Alan tells me to look for sandbars that rise at low tide and draw brown pelicans, black skimmers and other birds.

Two birds sit atop a telephone wire. One is a mourning dove, the other a mocking bird.

“Mocking birds hang around with everybody,” says Alan, who soon spots a Eurasian collared dove and points out its differences from the mourning dove.

I’ve driven through this subdivision 1,000 times, but this is the first time I notice all the bird life  – something he has been seeing for decades.

Civil War fort

The road to Fort Pickens rolls past acres of sea oats and glistening white sand, the Gulf of Mexico to the south, Santa Rosa Sound to the north.

At Battery Langdon, many of the birds are year-round residents – blue jays, brown thrashers, bellied woodpeckerss. Here’s an osprey nest high overhead, there’s an easily accessible trail wandering through vegetation rich with birds.

Alan has traveled as far as New Jersey and South America to see birds, but he’s spotted rare species right here as they migrate elsewhere or get blown off-course. He especially liked seeing a groove-billed ani, and once he spotted a seldom-seen Franklin gull among a flock of ubiquitous laughing gulls, much to the surprise of other birders.

“I got cross-examined on that one. They wanted to be sure,” he says with a laugh. “I passed the test.”

We resume cruising. A picnic area is devoid of people, but the quiet is broken by birds chirping. Near the fort, Alan points toward areas where he has seen unusual birds — a scissor-tailed flycatcher, a peregrine falcon and a rufous hummingbird, just to name a few.

There are many birds he still wants to see, but he’s not disappointed even when he has no unusual sightings.

“It’s like fishing,” Alan says. “If you caught fish every time you went, it wouldn’t be fun.”

I’m hooked. I can walk or cruise around beautiful beaches, rich vegetation and an historic fort, look at birds and stay curious and energetic. I have my new hobby.



A cheeky endorsement of twerking

(Here’s a column I wrote for the Sept. 9 issue of, a new site that focuses on politics.)


Many people are still outraged about Miley Cyrus and the bootylicious twerking she did with Robin Thicke on a recent television show, but angry adults won’t make the tackiness go away.

Instead, let twerking work for us.

Floridians of all ages should get their rumps rolling and their tongues dangling, just as Miley did when she impersonated a rookie stripper with her ungainly, unsexy strut across the stage.

The sight of adults twerking at the nearest shopping mall will make young people immediately declare twerking to be deader than Billy Ray Cyrus’ career.

Imagine all the grownups in Clearwater twerking in the dessert line at the Golden Corral. Or the senior citizens at The Villages twerking in the town square, and maybe even twerking as they zoom about in their golf carts. Twerking would be an entertaining exercise for the good ol’ boys to do between races at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola.

Twerking might even be good for the grumpy old guys who spend retirement days on their couch watching Fox News and worrying about people walking on their lawn. If the Foxaphiles twerk a few times on their porch, the lawn-stomping intruders will flee forever.

Whenever young people come up with a fad to irritate the old folks, the old folks predictably respond with outrage, shaking their fists and muttering about “kids these days.”

This is why we still have young guys walking around with their pants at half-mast, clutching their crotches and acting like the prison inmates who made the look popular 15 years ago.

When the low-flying pants first became fashionable, politicians burst into outrage and tried to pass laws against such stuff.

Let’s fight fire with satire.

Communities should organize parades celebrating the droopy-drawers stroll. Fill Main Street with fathers, uncles, coaches, ministers, teachers and grandpas, all struggling to swagger with their pants near their knees, and young folks would have gagged.

Fad over. Pants raised. Belts buckled.

This is why Florida should introduce twerking for seniors. Think of the benefits:

• Some of my fellow seniors need to get movin’ and groovin’. Maybe shakin’ and bakin’ will make them less cranky.

• Twerking could lead to medical breakthroughs. As age and gravity afflict us, many men lose their backsides — literally – while many women expand. Neither look is attractive. But with more twerking by seniors, there would be more demand for butt transplants so men could get more jiggle in their wiggle.

• Twerking could even decide our next governor’s race, where incumbent Rick Scott may face his predecessor, Charlie Crist. How’s a voter to decide? Scott was a Tea party guy before he edged toward the center, but is that a facade so he can get re-elected and resume throwing widows and orphans from their homes? And which Charlie will the new Crist be — “Chain Gang” Charlie, rockribbed Republican, or doting Democrat Charlie dancing to Barack Obama’s tune?

The simple solution: A televised two-man twerking contest. Then voters can see how the candidates really roll.



What do we call this book? (Ghostwriting 6)

So what’s the title?

Maybe you were lucky and you started the book with a title already selected, one that was so obvious it couldn’t be overlooked.

More likely, you didn’t have a title locked in, and that’s to be expected, even preferred.

You want to see where the story goes and what are the key elements. As you go along, building copy and expanding context, a title sometimes will serendipitously pop into your mind.

Other times, however, you will find yourself jumping from one possible title to another. (Sorry, but “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Great American Novel” are taken.)

Do some brainstorming. Write down 10 possible titles today, sleep on them and cut the list of possibilities tomorrow. Add some more possible titles and cut again. Eventually one will shine above all the others.

Today’s loosey-goosey style makes titles easier and more fun to develop. The proliferation of subtitles means you can cram a lot onto the title page — maybe the subject’s name and “how I cured dread disease” or something else dramatic.

Think about the words in the title and look for words that will resonate on title and word searches — something that will expand the client’s audience.

Some times, you’re looking less for flowing titles and more for an acronym or punchy word that will hit your target audience.

Say you’re writing a book about Recurring Monthly Revenue, the holy grail for businesses that want to have a steady stream of money. This audience knows the acronym — RMR — so you can fast forward the title and make it “Double Your RMR,” a title that gets the eye of potential readers.

If this is a book to be sold, you need a title that sells it. The title is your headline, your first impression, your hook.

Work on it and then work on it some more. It’s important.




More tricks for ghostwriting

In interviews and research you will run across material that doesn’t quite fit with the flow of the chapters.

Not a problem. Use it anyway.

Many of these items can be woven together in a potpourri chapter of odds and ends or used as sidebars to lighten the pages and add context, insight, history or humor.

Also, keep an eye peeled for photos and other images that help move the story along.

Candid shots are especially valuable because they add feeling usually missing from head shots.

Photos of family, friends and staffers will help, too. Even if the characters are so minor that they merit only a cutline, they add depth to the story and show people who were around the hero.

Depending on the topic, cartoons can be a big asset, too. You might even consider hiring an artist to draw caricatures, graphs and other art to give the story more dimensions — and add pages to the book, if that’s the client’s desire.

Most important, don’t be afraid to rewrite and rewrite the book before you give the client the final draft. It’s his story, but your writing that propels it, so take pride in the work.

It often helps to write something one day and then sleep on it a while before going back.

Read the copy aloud. This will help you detect clunky sentences and weak transitions — and it will help you spot typos and misspellings that spellcheck missed — pubic for public, scared for sacred, county for country, etc.

Before you give the final draft to the client, take one more step: Ask your spouse or some other unlucky layperson to read it. The thoughtful observations of a disinterested third party can point you in valuable new directions, reassure you that you’re on the right track, or give you some other valuable feedback.

And you will have a witness who sees that you actually have been working for at least some of those many hours you were squirreled away in your writing cave!



Public relations explained in 800 words or less

When people hear the words “public relations” they often think of ribbon-cuttings for businesses, oversized checks for donations to charities, and “spin doctors” working their witchy magic on the news media.

Public relations involves these things, but public relations offers much, much more important stuff, too.

It goes to the  heart of your business and how you relate to your public, your customers, your employees, your stockholders.

Do you train your employees to handle customers’ requests quickly and efficiently? Does your business communicate with customers and potential customers even when you’re not likely to make money immediately? Does your company spell out its goals, beliefs and promises so people know something material about this company that wants their money and their trust?

How about you? Do you return telephone calls promptly, or do you hide behind assistants? Do you ask customers to talk candidly about what your company did right and what it could have done better? Do you survey people to see what new products they want and what old products they would like to see replaced?

One of my pet peeves is doing business with a company that spends big bucks on advertising to get business, but then expects an untrained employee or a bored employee to handle the transaction once the customer comes in the door. Yet we run into this all the time at stores, professional offices, government agencies.

Then there are the companies that turn a negative into a positive. A friend and I recently got terrible service from one of my favorites lunch spots. We ordered our food at 11:45 a.m. but didn’t get our meals until 12:30. That same day, I sent the manager a polite note about my experience. Within an hour she sent me an apology and a coupon for two free lunches.

That’s a smart businesswoman. Now, instead of my friend and I badmouthing the restaurant to others, we’re talking about this wonderful experience and encouraging more people to go there.

Maybe you’ve noticed that this explanation of public relations repeatedly comes back to communication. It’s a word many of us hate or shy away from, but it’s vital for a business to succeed. (OK, men, how often do you automatically roll your eyes whenever your wife or girlfriend mentions “the need to communicate?” If so, you may need remedial public relations both at work and at home.)

A small-business owner can do a lot of one-on-one communicating with customers and potential customers. In fact, he’s the best person to do this because he’s the most knowledgeable person and the decision-maker.

But many times a business can get help from external public relations, which is what I do.

A p.r. pro can show a business how to spread the word of its existence and its value. We can use traditional media — newspapers, television, radio — and we can use social media — Facebook, Twitter, email, Instagram, Pinterest and more.

I was lucky to come of age in the days of traditional media — I wrote newspaper columns, published books and hosted radio and TV talk shows. But I’m also fortunate that I have been able to participate in the new media, which offer so many advantages over the media of just 10 or 20 years ago.

Traditional media are on the way out — newspapers, television and radio are all seeing their core audiences shrink as people move to the Internet. But the newspaper still is a key driver in a community like Pensacola, where people 50 and above grew up with the habit of reading a daily newspaper. This is especially important because the average person 50-plus has more disposable income than a 25-year-old or a 30-something.

The same holds true for television and radio stations. Their audiences are dwindling, but they’re still larger and often more affluent than the people who favor the Internet and social media.

Still, the future is clear. Eventually, all those folks who like to hold a newspaper in their hands or watch the ABC Nightly News will fade away, so a business needs to focus on which audience it wants now and in the future. Often, the solution is a blend of old media and new media.

Newspapers and TV advertising tend to be very expensive for a small business, but a well-placed news release costs a tiny amount of money compared to the visibility it can generate to promote a service or product or personality connected with your business.

This same news release — just a few paragraphs long — can also be repositioned for Facebook and Twitter and help you reach a younger audience, too.

Depending on your audience and your goals, you may want new media, old media or a blend of both.

Call me (850) 982-8585 and I will help you decide what’s the best strategy for you.