Making an Audiobook: Demystifying the Magic

An audiobook is seen as a new way of taking in a great story. Whether you love horror, westerns, science fiction, drama, romance, fantasy, business strategy, personal finance, legal thrillers, new age wisdom, or just about anything else, there’s an audiobook for it. If it can be read, it can be heard.

Listen to the audio version here:making-an-audiobook-anchor-podcast

In a way, the audiobook is really an even older form of knowledge transfer than the written word. Since the first human families told each other not to hang around where tigers hunted, people were relaying tales as compelling as any modern procedural.

“Yeah, that cave by the river. The last time the moon was full, Ooog walked into that and we haven’t seen him since. There were a bunch of bones in a pile nearby, that Wagawaga says wasn’t there before. The village shaman is the only one here who can put two and two together, and he says not to expect Ooog around to help with the harvest, okay?”

I’m on the edge of my seat. You too, right? At some point that shaman figured out how to write this stuff down, and the great argument about personality-based behaviorally targeted training kicked off from there.

We all know that one: It’s harder for some people to pay attention to written words, but not so much for listening. I’m a great reader and discoverer on my own time, but I find when listening to a podcast that I have to rewind it a lot (for the millennials – rewind means to take the play head back a bit to re-hear something. As an X-er, I can’t really help you with whatever a play head is. Ask those folks who know what dropping the needle is all about).

Anyway, some people are great at listening to a podcast or an audiobook. Now, I should take a moment here to note that audiobooks and podcasts are not the same thing, and really shouldn’t be recorded the same way. Podcasts often have music bumpers and backgrounds and involve more than one person ranting about something. They’re also not read, the way this is. Can you tell? I consider it a personal goal to make sure people can’t tell. But this isn’t always easy.

It is usually very clear and obvious when someone is reading something. In podcasts, which are usually interviews or people bantering, it’s mostly off the cuff. An audiobook or blog post like this one is written first, then read. But it’s still best if it sounds like something coming at you from the top of my head.

Some authors have even taken a different approach to writing because of the rise of audiobooks. One quick trick is to hear it in your head as you write. Right now, this is written as if it’s a guy with an overdone Chicago accent. Dah Bears. Yeah, dat one. But it could just as easily take a different direction for some Oxford don with his simultaneous lesson schedules instead of some yankee wanker.

Ironically, being from Boston, I have a terrible Boston drawl. It sometimes takes a few minutes to get into a character, so I’ll watch a video. Maybe that Casey Affleck Dunkin Donuts ad or the famous Baby Whale video.

Beyond accents, voices can take a multitude of different characters. People can be:

  • Nasal (Did I do that?)
  • Grainy (Get off my lawn)
  • Gravelly (Found someone you have)
  • Deep (No, I am your father)
  • High (Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking, just a moment)
  • Thick (64 slices of American cheese)
  • Hollow (We will add your technological distinctiveness to our own)
  • Expressive (Why the North Pole of course)
  • Noir (Where I go, the wind follows)

It’s possible to add or subtract age to a voice, too. When narrating, I bump into a lot of women’s and kids’ voices as well. That…can be a challenge. It’s not about high pitch, but more about resonance. What I do is think about something called a head voice. Like singing falsetto. If you can do a Michael Jackson voice, you’re there.

Now, all the same rules apply, Dahlink!

Many audiobook listeners don’t love the voices, by the way, and sometimes it’s better to keep it subtle. The only drawback is in long exchanges of dialogue without attribution. These happen more often, too, because hearing “Blah blah blah” he said, “Yadda yadda yadda” she replied, “Doo bee doo bee doo” he said…gets a little clunky. This is where character differences become important.

The best authors write their characters with varied attitudes. You can sense this from their dialogue. Some characters are just wry or sarcastic all the time. Some are deadpan. Some have a comedic cadence and a natural sense of timing. Others are just always…awkward. People can creep you out saying the same thing that someone else says in a very charming way. These are just some of the unspoken signals people send to each other, and it crosses the line from vocal audio production to psychology. Which itself is another fascinating subject, those little vocal cues. Most people know about the smile. Sound like you’re smiling. You can also evoke super-depressing ideation using your voice. This is the sort of thing I think about a lot when producing an audiobook.

The narrator is unique in an audiobook, because it’s really the main character. Rather, it’s the character that does most of the talking. Why should the real main character, who probably has five percent of the words in the book compared to the narrator, have all the fun? Unless the author asks for a flat narration, I like to let the narrator emote a little. When there’s sadness, express sadness. When all is well, be happy. The narrator can add tension, fear, suspense, and express action. The narrator can slow it down or pep it up.

As far as the technology, it’s really fairly simple. I have a laptop, and yes, it has a fan, which makes noise. The mic in the same room picks this up all the time, and my studio is fairly quiet, so it’s pretty rumbly. This is why in any professional studio that gear stays out of the room, often called a booth. Mine is separated by a thick insulated wall and ceilings, with wall baffles and carpeting on the floor. The computer is outside the booth and connected to a wall screen so I can read and control the rig with the mouse. A remote keyboard helps, too, so I can type character names and find words in the text.

The other two primary components are the microphone and the interface. That’s a box that turns old-school analog audio from the mic into a digital signal the computer can store and process. It also includes the audio output for headphones and speakers. Back in the day, the mic interface used a multipin connector and needed a special adapter for the computer. Today’s interfaces use USB. Now, sometimes these are combined in what’s called a USB mic, which saves a lot of space and hassle.

BUT… the mic is a really important tool, and so is the preamplifier and A/D converter inside the interface. Professional studios think of these as the holy grail for optimizing the sound quality. With a bad mic and a bad interface, it doesn’t matter how golden your voice is. Does that mean a combined mic & interface is a useless brick? Absolutely not. The makers of these are among the top makers of audio gear in the world.

I’ll add that a good pair of cans and studio reference speakers are also critical. How are you going to process your audio with junk from the dollar store? And the dollar store does sell these things. So, just… don’t. They’re not too expensive. All told, you can get all this gear for a few hundred bucks. Not the PC of course, but that’s something you have anyway, right?

Now to the software. You’re going to need some kind of editing program. A lot of podcasters use free stuff that can be downloaded and used to clip up their WAV files and output MP3. You might record a chapter that takes an hour to read. If you’re efficient like I am, you can clip out a few long breaks or rereads (I’ll trip over a phrase once in awhile), and still have 45 or 50 minutes. A lot of listeners like the breaths in between, so I don’t gate all of those out, and you can even use breaths for effect. Trust me, it makes no sense for someone to run screaming from a zombie if they didn’t take a breath first.

Now what was that I said about a gate? Like in music recording, there are a few important processing tools available within any good audio recording and editing application. These include:

  • The equalizer, which lets you tailor the highs and lows at different frequencies to accommodate your voice, and sometimes adjust for shortcomings in your mic, preamp, and speakers or headphones. This is another reason not to skimp on any of that.
  • You also want a compressor, to crush your audio signal to a smaller dynamic range, so it’s never too quiet and never too loud. People are listening in their cars or in other loud environments, so they need a fairly consistent level.
  • Another tool is the noise gate, which cuts out background noise. Technically, this shouldn’t be critical if you record in a quiet studio, but you don’t always have an optimal environment.

This is the part where I tell you what I use: Pro Tools, with the built-in seven-band EQ, the gate and the Maxim limiter. I punch up the track volume by 6dB as well, but this varies depending on the technical requirements of the publishing and streaming website.

Of course, the best equipment in the world doesn’t matter if you’re that guy who can clear the Thanksgiving table with your boring diatribes. But even here you’d be surprised what listeners will put up with.

My kids watch YouTube videos about gaming where the narrators drone on, monotone, eating the mic, yelling, flat, whatever. It doesn’t seem to matter. Some folks make a brand out of it. It’s amazing. All the rules go out the window, because maybe they’re not really rules. Like I said at the beginning, people have been telling stories forever, and let’s face it, if grandma couldn’t warn the kiddies about the tiger in the grass because she was boring, none of us would be here.

Now, the folks in radio have been doing this forever, but they’re in an industry that most of us will never get anywhere near. That’s one reason podcasts and audiobooks are so interesting. Any dope can get the equipment, learn a couple of skills and get into it. It’s truly the democratization of storytelling.

A New History of NFL Rule Changes Caused by Patriots’ Cheating

A New History of NFL Rule Changes Caused by Patriots' Cheating By TOM BISHOP

Instigative Reporter | 03.25.2048 | 7:17 AM

BOSTON, PREFECTURE 18 – The oft-beseiged-by-scandal New England Patriots are at it again, if you take the latest report from the MSESPNBCNN Sports Network at face value. The first day of the Inter-National Football League’s annual meeting has opened with a torrent of acrimony and vitriol from the league’s 63 team owners not named Kraft. This time, the owners have forwarded a proposal to prohibit the use of cryogenic reanimation of past coaches, which the Patriots have now gotten away with for three seasons.

The twenty-two-time World Super Bowl Champions most recently took home the Belichick Trophy in Tokyo, allegedly with the help of the eponymous coach himself, despite his ‘official’ passing four years ago. This latest outrage comes in the wake of last year’s scandal involving anti-gravity skeletal insertions used by several players. Though it wasn’t technically outlawed, the INFL ruled out the insertions after the Patriots went 24-0 and took home their twenty-first INFL Championship in Amsterdam.

Like white-hat cyber-hackers, the Patriots have been the INFL’s “Rule Viability Testers” for several decades. Because of this, the pall of derision and ire against the team has spread around the world. In Moscow, they’ve popularized chess pawns with shoulder pads, helmet and a carved #12. Fans of the Paris “Escargot Thunder” spit into napkins bearing the Flying Elvis. In the Middle East, they burn Patriots flags instead of the Stars & Stripes. Fans of other legendary sports rivalries have turned their mutual hatred toward the Pats instead.

Let’s look at the litany of INFL rule changes made in the wake of the Patriots’ rule-bending strategies since the days of the sideline videocamera:

  • 2046/47 INFL Season: Float-Gate. Anti-Gravity Skeletal Insertions specifically prohibited by any player after the Pats allegedly covered the helio-silica surgical implants, originally designed for use in aeronautics, for 17 players over the previous five years.
  • 2044/45: Invisi-Gate. Invisibility cloaking apparel and apparatus outlawed by the league after the Patriots won three games using up to six invisible players, mostly on defense, to disrupt or assist the visible players.
  • 2038/39: Tase-Gate. Electrically-charged uniforms no longer allowed after the Patriots won seven straight victories without any of their players being tackled.
  • 2030/31: Psycho-Gate. Use of sideline psychics to read opposing coaches’ minds was considered for prohibition after the Pats were caught using them for the previous four seasons, but ultimately revised to allow each team one certified psychic registered with IMPART, NAMI, or the AFCPM (but not IAPLT – that one’s bullshit).
  • 2028/29 NFL Season: Glove-Gate. The NFL bans the use of adhesive pads in gloves worn by quarterbacks. It is alleged that QBs for at least 22 teams used these Stanford-engineered enhancements, and not even Tom Brady, though by this time he and the Pats are considered the embodiment of this sort of contrivance.
  • 2020/21: “Compression-Gate” results in rule changes for extreme compression gear worn by Patriots players to reduce their body composition profile, decreasing their wind resistance and making them more difficult to tackle. The new rules limit the tensile strength and flexibility of synthetic fabrics for NFL teams, and other sports leagues make similar changes, causing Under Armour to lose 67% of its stock value.
  • 2021/22: Gate-Gate. Because you know there had to be one. The Pats secretly test subliminal message delivery to fans during the security wand procedure at the stadium gate. Originally meant to spike concession revenues, the league has to specify metal detection equipment for every team after the Pats use RFID wands to influence fan loyalty.
  • 2018/19: Tweet-Gate causes the NFL to ban cell phones from the press box and sidelines after the Patriots are caught “crowd-sourcing” game strategy from observant fans sending Tweets and texts to team coaches during the game.
  • 2014/15: Deflate-Gate. Patriots and Tom Brady punished after equipment staff were caught tampering with game balls, because they knew their nephews playing in Pop Warner and PeeWee leagues preferred the balls to be slightly deflated. Or they had read about it in a science book, or something. It had nothing to do with any request from Tom Brady, of course.
  • 2014/15: The NFL changed the rules on receiver eligibility declarations after the Patriots skirted the spirit of lineman eligibility rules in at least two games.
  • 2012/13: After eleven years, the NFL finally changes the “Tuck Rule” that started Tom Brady and the Patriots even being a thing.
  • 2007/08: NFL charges largest fine ever after Pats caught videotaping opposing coaches from the sidelines in a scandal called “Spy-Gate”. The issue narrowly avoids becoming a US Senate Hearing.

At this year’s meeting, the INFL is also said to be considering banning Tom Brady from continuing to play and earn the highest QB ratings in the league at age 70, by outlawing “whatever the hell he’s doing” according to league commissioner Maxwell Gauthier.

Tom Bishop can be reached on Twitter at @myleftone

On Haters

polar-bear-haterA few years ago there was a book, an author’s first published novel. Originally, it was something she wrote just for fun.

Then, out of nowhere, it became a national phenomenon. It spread around the globe, as people picked it up out of sheer curiosity, or just wanted to be part of this massive viral sensation.

As with every hit book, Hollywood quickly got on board. They turned the author’s fantasy lark into a much anticipated, big-name-affiliated movie, and some people hated it.

They hated the marketing. They hated the story. They hated the characters. They hated the actors. They hated the author. They hated the director. They hated the ads.

I remember arguing with friends who groused that the movie was pop culture tripe that sent all the wrong messages, and was a cataclysmically false appropriation of the culture portrayed in the film.

That movie was Fifty Shades of Grey… I believe there’s a third one out, that has already eclipsed its budget seven times.

Haters gonna hate, right? But another thing haters do, is validate.

Andy Wier’s “The Martian” had a similar introduction to the world. Released chapter-by-chapter online, it gathered enough of a following that it became a published novel. It’s hard sci-fi, and the book can almost serve as an advanced mathematics text. He found a way to make science accessible in a story that was just good clean fun (well, cleaner than 50 Shades anyway).

And when it became a movie, it had haters. People bashed it for being scientifically unsound. Far-fetched. Derivative. And of course we know where that went. His next book, “Artemis”, is a best-seller. Everything the guy does from now on is guaranteed to be a movie.

Soon enough, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash will be a streaming series. People will hate it. Seveneves will be impossible to adapt to film, but Ron Howard is trying, and people will hate it. Dan Brown is a novel-to-hit-movie perpetual motion device, but they hate him too. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series will be adapted for film or television, and it will have haters.

Black panther has haters. Stephen King has haters. The breakout book of 2018 (which I am digging into right now) is an incomparably brilliant new fantasy tale, and Hollywood has already jumped on board. It will, crushingly, have haters.

Harry Potter has haters.

I’m just sayin’. Everything has haters.

So I’m not surprised that some people hate Ready Player One. I don’t know if it it is coming from the real geeks, or if the real geeks are people like me, who legitimately got beat up by blond kids in the ’80s.

Or maybe I’m one of those dudes who latched onto something after it became cool, I don’t know, like the jocks who discovered Metallica in 1988. But it doesn’t matter. Ready Player One speaks to me. It doesn’t speak to everyone. That’s cool.

Too-cool-for-school is a traditional trope that has been with us since James Dean.

I admit, though, it would be nice if people could focus their hate on something that deserves it.

Disney’s “Zombies”, for example.

“Susan”

susan-curios-on-window-sillKids these days. They have it pretty easy, don’t they? The Internet is everywhere, there’s no shortage of cable channels to choose from, and videogames are so embedded into daily life we barely even notice them. A trip to Grandma’s involves an hour or two of backseat gaming, a few more hours of television, a hasty meal and a bored visit to the garden, followed by tantrums over the WiFi password and an angry drive home because the iPad is dead.

In my day… oh, here we go, “In my day!” Really. I hate to say it, but it’s true. There were no microwaves, no cable channels, no smartphones, and no wireless Internet. A visit to Grandma’s usually meant watching trees zip by, a black-and-white television that was never turned on, a ponderously slow dinner, and a tour of the garden that was actually a highlight.

Then, for real entertainment, there were the trinkets on the windowsill. I think every grandmother had them. These little glass baubles were found in every window in the house, and they came in every shape and color. Little red cups, blue vases, pink ballerinas, butterscotch birds, and they weren’t just on the sills. Grandma had placed them on top of every sash, and there were extras on shelves throughout the house. The sun beamed through them, throwing beads of color across the floor and walls. When the colors rose just so far up the back wall of the dining room, we knew it was time to hit the road.

Those days eventually end, as they must for everyone, and the houses are sold, boxes are packed, and the trinkets are forever lost, to remain only in memory. Once in a while a cellar is cleared, and boxes of these glass curios are discovered, wrapped in old newsprint: a local sports team wins a trophy in 1954; Jackie Kennedy’s recipe for a noodle casserole; Comics lampooning Nixon. And inside, glass junk, fads from a bygone era, suitable only for a dumpster.

And that brings me to the Wakefield house.

———-
The house was a flip. I’d say it was a failed one, though most of the work was top notch. The failure was in the previous owner’s timing. Bought at the peak of the market, and unsuccessfuly sold at the bottom. They’d had the place for a year or so, and the bank had it for three. My wife Lisa and I bought it in a dusty, neglected condition, but with good ‘bones’, new walls and ceilings and updated heating and electrical. A steal, with only some cleaning to do.

‘Only’ can be a loaded word. The basement of this house was still packed with boxes and old furniture. We found stuff in the attic, too. The houseflippers gave all this stuff up, or maybe it was there before. Of course we determined that this was the end of the line for most of it.

While clearing out the junk, it was apparent that this house had been lived in for a long time by someone. What we could glean from the collection was that an older couple had accumulated clothes, books, old board games, tools, toys from every era. We figured out how to give a lot of it away.

For the old furniture and anything we couldn’t donate, dumpsters were hauled in, and out. Two twenty-yarders. I tried to keep anything worthwhile. Tools! A model railroad set (that has yet to be built). And there was one box of these glass trinkets that so closely matched the ones I remember, I couldn’t quite toss it. It stayed.

The house was interesting. It had a quirky sideways floor plan with a huge living room, an open kitchen with a dining area, a weird little den in between, and a short corridor that formed a loop. The main bedroom was double the size of a normal one, with its own full bathroom. Most, if not all, of the walls were new.

———–
Before long, Lisa started complaining about a feeling she was getting about the place. She was always into this kind of hocus-pocus, paranormal bullcrap, so when she said she felt a presence in the house, I treated it like so much nonsense. Her sister would visit, and, completely independently, mentioned a weirdness about the place. I was sure they were collaborating on some kind of practical joke.

The gist of it was that there was something going on at the bottom of the stairs. A chill, or a tingling, which they felt every time they walked past the spot. We rearranged the living room furniture so we were never sitting back-to the stairway. Before long, even I became a little anxious looking down the stairs after dark.

My dubiousness about the situation began to unravel after a number of strange incidents. One involved a friend who was having trouble with his family, and needed a place to stay. We were quick to offer up the couch, since we had two extra bedrooms but no beds. We left him stretched out on the couch with a sleeping bag, but the next morning, he emerged from an empty bedroom. As he told it, something down there spooked him. He wound up running right through it to get upstairs, and felt a cold spot.

Any concerns we had about taking in a new resident went out the window, but we gained a name for the phenomenon: the cold spot.

It was our first Thanksgiving in the house, when my mom, sitting at the table, looked toward the living room and asked us what was up in there. She’d felt something. A presence. I gave my wife and her sister a glance and dug back into my turkey and stuffing.

———-
Finally, on a severely cold evening less than a week before Christmas, there was a knock on the door. A woman about our age stood on the steps. Her name was Ashley, and she was visiting from Pennsylvania. Apparently she’d grown up in the area, and visited her grandmother in this house. She just wondered if she could see what’s become of the old place.

I don’t know if it was wise. I wouldn’t advise anyone do this, but we let her in. We believed her, and I think we were thinking the same thing: that maybe, just maybe, she held an answer to our shared question.

Lisa started a pot of coffee. While it brewed, Ashley gave us a tour of the house. My hunch about the upstairs was true; the master suite used to be two bedrooms. Downstairs, the renovators had made a ton of changes. The fireplace wasn’t always surrounded by ornate woodwork, the kitchen was originally closed off from the dining area, and the living room was now larger.

As we sat in the living room with our coffee, Ashley told us how there used to be a corridor leading to the stairs, where a rank of shelves opened to the living room. On these shelves, her grandmother kept a bunch of colorful little glass trinkets, and she’d often stand at the bottom of the stairs, contentedly arranging them.

Lisa and I shared a look. “Guess what?” I said. “We have something for you.”

I bounded down the cellar stairs and returned with the box. I placed it on the coffee table and opened it. Ashley saw exactly what was in there, and if it can be said that I’ve ever seen someone positively beam, it was then.

She pulled out several of the curios. She had a little story about them, and where they came from. Most of them, as far as she knew, her grandmother had always had on the shelves, but there were some that were bought at a county fair, a few at local yard sales. A blue seahorse that was given as a gift. A green teacup that she bought in Maine.

“You should have these,” I told her. “They belong to you. They’re your family’s.”

Ashley looked at me like I’d just told a hideous joke.

“Oh, no. No,” she said. “These could never leave here. They belong in this house.”

I will swear that I felt the presence then, standing just over Ashley’s shoulder. I’m sure my wife felt it. If Ashley did, too, she never let on. After a few more minutes talking about the house and her grandmother, we bid Ashley goodbye, and she left to brave the freezing night.

———-
I closed the door, and instantly knew what she meant about where the trinkets belonged. They couldn’t just be in a box. They stayed on the table another day or two, until I dug out a spice rack we kept in the basement (having never found a place for it). I installed the spice rack on the wall near the bottom of the stairs, and we arranged the colorful little glass things on it.

It was a nice addition to the Christmas junk we’d hung all over the house. Maybe it was a little tacky, but if it served a purpose, then so be it. For the rest of the holidays, we didn’t feel a presence, but it was likely because the house was in a state of constant noise as parties were held and family and friends were entertained. People asked about the trinkets on the shelves, and we said we’d found them in a box and put them up. Nobody ever mentioned feeling anything near the stairway.

Sometime in January, I noticed something about the glassware; they had been rearranged. Lisa swore she never touched them, and I believed her.

You see, we didn’t know how to arrange them. Should it be by color, by size, by type? This arrangement was seemingly random, but also had a kind of feel to it that was incomprehensible. An artistic intuition had been applied that neither of us had. We’d never heard any of them move, and certainly hadn’t seen it happen, but it was undeniable; they had been.

As time went on, we didn’t feel the presence any more, or at least I didn’t. Maybe I was imagining it, but occasionally, I could swear one of the trinkets would move.

We only lived there another year. When it came time to sell the place, I made sure to tell the new owners they’d be better off leaving the shelves of curios exactly as is. I’m pretty sure they weren’t about to do so.

I do know this: on the last night we spent in the house, we’d sat on the couch with a pizza, and Lisa went upstairs to pack the last few boxes of clothes. I poked at the embers in the fireplace, and suddenly felt the glare of eyes behind me. I turned to the stairs. No, I did not see anything, but I felt the old woman standing at the shelves looking at me. She wasn’t angry, wasn’t sad. It wasn’t happiness either, but I felt, almost imperceptibly, that she gave me a little nod.

I nodded back, and the presence was gone.

———-
Some time later that year I looked into the history of the house. The people who owned it, before the people who tried to flip it, had lived there sixty years. Adam and Susan Drexler. They were married for fifty-two of those years. Susan had outlived her husband by eight more.

We never heard from Ashley again, but I was able to find her grandmother’s obituary. She was found by her middle-aged son sitting peacefully, eyes closed, at the bottom of the stairs. She hadn’t fallen there, but it seemed she had been standing in the hallway, felt something, and simply sat down to rest.

May she rest well.

Make The Connection: Enable Sales With Online Presentations

Show Your Face: Enable Sales With Online Presentations | KnowledgeVision Fresh Ideas BlogSales is about making connections. When you reach out to people with a solution, whether it’s analytics software, a carpet-cleaning service, or a new brand of vegetable juice, it’s the connection that matters first.

And that connection is made with a smile, a “hello”, and a handshake. Something you can’t do when making connections online.

Until now. Online presentations are a tool that puts your face right in front of people. Stephanie Grant uses online presentations to help Abel-Womack’s sales executives make connections with people, ultimately to increase sales.

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Learning in a Global Business: How Waters Corporation Uses Online Presentations

Learning in a Global Business: How Waters Corporation Uses Online PresentationsRemember science class? That’s where, as kids, we got to mix chemicals, dissect frogs, and burn stuff. What fun!

Yes, we also had to memorize the periodic table and calculate equations, and yes, we’d sometimes wonder when we were ever going to use these scientific concepts.

Waters Corporation has been putting science to good use for more than fifty years. They’re a leading maker of analytical instruments for measuring fluids and substances used in healthcare delivery, environmental management, food safety, and water quality.

So it’s a good thing the people at Waters paid attention in science class. If you eat food, fuel your car, or use medicine, equipment from Waters probably had a role in ensuring the safety and effectiveness of the products you use.

Would you guess that their internal learning programs are a little, shall we say, involved?

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What’s Next For Content Creation? Four Technologies To Watch

What's Next For Content Creation? Four Technologies To Watch | KnowledgeVision Fresh Ideas BlogCall me crazy. I’m always thinking of a solution to problems.

I’m not sure this even qualifies as a problem. Maybe it’s a “First-world problem”, but here it is: How can we create great content without sitting at a computer?

What kind of innovations exist out there to help us multi-task? Can we use voice-to-text, mobile tablets, or specialized headgear to develop content that people will love?

Turning Thoughts Into Words

Here are some of the technologies that, believe it or not, we’ll all be using in the near future to create content:

stock-blog-text-driverVoice to Text Apps: You’ve heard of voice notes, where you make a recording of your random thoughts when you’re not in a position to type, like when you’re out on a morning jog. The idea is that those thoughts are going to be worthwhile enough to transcribe later (provided these aren’t thoughts recorded at two in the morning while watching the Cartoon Network).

And of course, why transcribe? Isn’t word-recognition technology able to record directly to text? For phones and tablets, there are numerous voice-to-text applications. Maybe that guy in the car next to you isn’t ranting at the radio or muttering conspiracy theories, but writing a post for his sports blog. You can even have Apple’s Siri Eyes Free installed in your car.

One major glitch: Voice to Text apps don’t make driving any safer, according to a recent study by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. It turns out that looking away from the road isn’t the only distraction; it’s thinking.

stock-blog-virtual-realityVR-Style Headgear: Remember when Virtual Reality was the coolest thing ever? The problem was that these funky headworn devices only played back content. They could not create it. Something like Google Glass will let you record your voice and snapshot everything you see with no effort. Even Robert Scoble is now a believer in Google Glass.

But Glass and devices like it (like Vuzix) still have some obstacles to overcome, such as pricing and concerns over privacy. Store and restaurant owners are already deciding whether to allow the headworn futuristic things into their establishments, and there’s no doubt some litigation and legislation to follow. I believe that, like tablets and smartphones, they’ll attract a limited stratum of superuser. Then once someone discovers the killer application, we’ll all wonder how we survived without them.

stock-blog-tablet-heldMobile Tablets: Naturally, the iPad, Android, Kindle (oh, and Microsoft Surface) tablets have changed the way people view content. First, they’re now more likely to browse while watching television, as well as carry the things into restaurants to amuse their fidgety children (guilty!). But there’s no reason they can’t be considered tremendous content-creation tools as well.

Tablets are fine for writing, but because of the tablet’s touchscreen, they lend themselves readily to graphics production and editing. Specialized tablet apps like Adobe’s Photoshop Touch, and something like Sketchbook Express let you edit photos and create graphics. And of course there’s a phalanx of apps that let you share them on the web pretty easily, even from a phone.

stock-blog-power-gloveDon’t Leave Without Your Gloves: By now you’ve seen Minority Report, and while, like me, you probably can’t remember the story, I’ll bet you remember Tom Cruise’s computerized gloves. They were simply the interface for a gee-whiz transparent display, but they captured the imagination of tech geeks everywhere.

Shouldn’t it be possible, someday, to use gloves like this to interface with a computer or other type of screen, to create all kinds of content? You could type away at thin air and see the results directly on your Google Glass display while sitting on a beach.

People who create content are always looking for that spark, an inspiration, and that often happens to us while sitting at the ballgame, hiking a mountain peak, or using a playground slide. These technological marvels will let us continue to search for inspiration, and take advantage of it immediately.

It’s The Thought That Counts

So these devices may make it easier to multitask and create on the fly. But if thinking is the problem, as the Texas A&M study reveals, can you create great content while using a treadmill? Anyone can ingest news and other content on the overhead televisions at the gym, and many people read books on Kindles and (gasp) paper while working out, riding the train, walking the dog, and doing all sorts of other activities.

Can it work the other way around? Can you create compelling content while crushing calories? Or is mental focus as critical to creativity as it is to driving? Arguably, most people will probably create higher-quality content when they are sitting quietly and undisturbed.

But what about those brain flashes that hit you while you’re inspecting avocados in the produce aisle? For instance, I’ve written entire blog posts while strolling through a mall. That doesn’t change the essential rules about identifying an audience, using research, and calling for action. For that, whatever futuristic device I’m using better be connected to the internet.

But no matter how easy it is to create content on these awesome tools, let’s just keep them out of the car.

Originally published on The KnowledgeVision Fresh Ideas Blog.

E-Learning Innovation: Ground Rules for What Comes Next

E-Learning Innovation: Ground Rules for What Comes Next | KnowledgeVision Fresh Ideas BlogDistance Learning has been a buzzword for awhile. But I’m not talking about an educational method that goes back to 1996, or 1982.

In fact, distance education dates to 1728, when a Boston when a local educator began offering distance correspondence courses (by post or mail). The first correspondence degree was offered by the University of London in 1858.

So the innovators go back aways. They aren’t just the people we read about today, like Daphne Koller, Richard Saul Wurman, or Salman Khan, who are certainly innovators in their own right. But they are standing on the shoulders of people who long ago realized that students didn’t have to be present to learn.

And someday, somebody will stand on theirs. But what kind of learning innovations will they dream up?

What’s Next In Online Learning?

Let’s parse out some critical components of distance education on which the next ideas will be built on.

  1. It will be flexible. If the fact that distance education began in the 18th century tells us anything, it’s that technology has little to do with it. The printing press, the postal system, the phone and fax machine, the internet, the social sites, mobile devices and virtual environments and devices like Google Glass shouldn’t matter. Any learning system should probably be built so that the next big thing doesn’t mean throwing the whole learning model out.

    This means there should be a focus on the lightest footprint possible for a course, whether it means crowdsourced data, cloud storage and delivery, or use of a peer-to-peer network. The course should be available on many platforms without too much modification.

  1. It will be enduring. Every item out there on the web is available to view and learn from. Many articles we find when gathering information may be several years old. That doesn’t mean they’re outdated. Despite advancements in healthcare, software, robotics, and other areas, many core principles remain stable. This could mean that the fundamentals of any curriculum area are easily translated to online learning, even years after the course was created.

    So there is no need for an innovative course platform to emphasize a finite duration overall, only for the individual learners. As long as teachers are available, numerous courses can run for long periods of time and educate thousands of users in an asynchronous manner.

  1. It will be measurable. Communication is critical in any kind of learning system, and a distance education makes it even more important. Besides having numerous ways to coordinate efforts between teachers, students, and other parties that have an interest in their education, an innovative course platform should include ways for the trainer or teacher to review feedback from students as well as monitor their progress. It should also give the students ways to see how they are doing over time, as well as see up-to-date responses from the teacher.

    Some online learning tools emphasize one type of measurement system over another, largely based on which kind of technology is their bread and butter. Content-based platforms focus on viewership stats, while tools that are communications platforms at heart focus on statistics related to discussion. True learning tools will include that, while focusing on feedback and outcomes as a snapshot and over a time period.

  1. It will be accessible. This word means many things. The learning tool should be easy enough to use that it doesn’t hinder the learning process, and it should be readily used by people who are disabled. It also means an innovative tool should not rely on one kind of device. If people are able to use technology they already own to take part in the course, that’s the best approach.

    The accessibility of a learning tool puts a great emphasis on the design of the course platform. Even more than the user-experience design practices favored by website and e-commerce designers, a learning platform needs to make clear what students are supposed to do throughout the process, as well as allow teachers to create and modify their courses easily.

  1. It will be visual. Whether that means users share a presence in video, animation, images, or graphics, making it easy for them to create ideas in a visual format will be paramount. Visible concepts are more readily grasped, and are more widely shared. Yet, most graphic design tools are still seen as the domain of professionals who specialize in their art. Infographic-building tools are on the rise, as well as visually-focused sharing platforms, and it’s no stretch to imagine that learning can take some pages from the social media and content marketing realms.

    A learning tool should include a way to gather data and details and display it in an immediately-publishable visual image. Barring that, the tool should integrate with other graphics-development platforms that emphasize ease and share-ability.

Obviously, these rules don’t have to be taken as dogma. It’s possible that the next big advancement in distance learning will be built for one type of platform, be difficult to use, be almost unmeasurable and yet be wildly popular. Stranger things have happened. I believe the ideas that will endure over time will be those that follow at least a couple of these ground rules.

At some point, we’ll be reading about another innovation from a visionary building on the accomplishments of those who have captured our admiration today.

Originally published on The KnowledgeVision Fresh Ideas Blog.

Innovative Disruption: The New Normal for Online Media

Innovative Disruption: The New Normal for Online Media | KnowledgeVision Fresh Ideas BlogLast week I took my daughter to her first Red Sox game. We got there early, explored the ballpark, and enjoyed some Fenway Franks, peanuts and ice cream while we watched the first four innings. We left before the first rain delay of the 2013 season. This game was also a long-term milestone for the team, as it was their first non-sold-out game in ten years.

That’s disruption.

On the train ride to Boston’s North Station, I used a new payment system provided by the MBTA; mTicket, a mobile app that lets you buy your ticket and activate it when you board. I worried that it wouldn’t work, or that the T conductor had never heard of it, and we’d get tossed from the last car at a low speed. Instead, the app worked perfectly.

More disruption.

On the subway ride to the ballpark, we saw several people reading books on Kindles and other handheld devices. During the game, a lot of people took pictures with their phones, of the game, the players, and each other. I joined in the fun, and we’ve all seen Facebook friends posting pics of themselves at the game. People take mobile pics at rock concerts, too. It harkens back to the (circa 2004) obnoxious use of cell phones while sitting behind home plate.

All of that is disruption.

Innovative Disruption: The New Normal

Innovation has made it possible to disrupt one industry after another, from home delivery of groceries to genetic RNA interference. In the realm of education and training, Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, allow countless users to take part in university courses, which may be regular in-person courses or specialized for online learning.

In business, online video and online presentations have become a disruptive tool for sales and marketing, as more video communications tools emerge and more conferences occur online. I remember when we thought videoconferencing was a killer for the airline industry, but in reality online video and presentations have enhanced live events, while the real killer apps aren’t just about communication, but collaboration.

Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen has led the discussion on disruptive innovation for years. His books have focused on new technologies and mechanisms that have changed companies, industries, and the world. We think of mobile devices and social websites as disruptive innovations, and they are; but it doesn’t have to be technology. Business methods and ideas can also turn the tables on how things are.

What makes a concept disruptive?

It’s important to note that disruptive technologies and ideas are nearly impossible to identify, except to visionaries. This is because they should be characterized not by what they are, but for what they aren’t:

  • They are not a reason for change: Brian Solis says that disruption is a catalyst for change, but not the reason. Look at the current content marketing trend, which is considered disruptive, but it emerged partly because of social media, which required a constant flow of new, original, branded and unbranded content. Similarly, tablets like the Apple Newton existed for decades, without a clear purpose, before Apple launched the iPad and changed everything.
  • They lack refinement: Often, new technologies have no single organization driving best practices. MySpace and Friendster began as an expanded version of online chat, and only now, with the emergence of the Facebook Timeline and Google Plus, are we beginning to see design dominance in online social platforms. Or are we? Pinterest is driving a completely different look for social sharing, and Facebook’s frequent updates still drive people nuts.
  • They lack performance analytics: Views, shares, likes, retweets, leads, opportunities, influence, and engagement…the list goes on. These terms are still fairly new, and it’s unclear which of these communications metrics actually mean much to a company’s bottom line. More importantly, how marketers can best manipulate these numbers remains a mystery, as does how they can readily use these metrics to drive true business impact.
  • They lack an audience: A disruptive innovation is usually a simple fix to a product that is meaningful only to a small group of people, the way content management systems began as a better way to store documents and share them with people across internal networks. It mattered only to IT managers. Today, a CMS like WordPress allows any web publisher to share just about anything with the whole world, using customized designs and access levels.
  • They lack an application: It’s usually easy to see something emerge, but be unable to imagine a use for it. Look at the iPad, which sold well at the outset but originally stymied people as to its best use. The complaints included “no keyboard”, “too big to be a phone”, and “too underpowered to run desktop applications”. That didn’t matter. Mobile apps and cloud technology combined drove the success of these platforms, and now people can browse, read, search, communicate, and view videos while watching TV, working in retail or healthcare, sitting at the beach, or riding the train.

In online media, whether it is for communications or social sharing, disruption is driving incredible changes in the way we do things. It’s already hard to imagine how we got by without Facebook, and five years from now we’ll wonder how we survived without something some software developer is creating right now.

But disruption still has its holdouts. On the subway ride home, I saw a student reading Clayton Christensen’s book “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns”.

In hardcover.

Originally published on The KnowledgeVision Fresh Ideas Blog.