More on being your own boss at work

Lisa Dill, a recruiter and trainer, has written a Digital Professional Institute article about how to impress your boss and I think her last one is precisely what I’ve been going on about today here and in the newsletter.

Here’s Dill’s take:

I’m sure we all want to be the individual in the office with the next great idea. Occasionally we may even find ourselves daydreaming about how to make certain aspects of what our company does better overall. Then, all of a sudden it hits you, and you’re ready to present your next big idea. Before you do, pause, think it through, and then bring it to your boss with a plan in mind of how you’d recommend getting it done. Ideas are one thing, but making them a reality is entirely different. Presenting your boss with a game plan is going to demonstrate to her that you don’t just have good ideas, but you can put them into action. This provides her with one less thing to think about in regard to how to get something accomplished, but it also gives you ownership of seeing your idea through and the praise when it’s implemented successfully.

Five Simple Ways to Wow Your Boss – Lisa Dill, Digital Professional Institute (undated)

Read the full piece for more specific advice on handling yourself at work.

Just say no, for the love of god, say no

We writers have a habit of bowing to authority, which seems a little strange given our jobs and how we avoid regular employment. But if we pitch an idea to a producer, we feel as if we are then waiting for word on high. We do that thing of wondering whether we can dare chase them, whether we can contact many producers at the same time or will we offend them by going to several.

The trouble is that we end up convincing producers and they treat us like that. They’ll get back to us or they won’t, they’ll deign to answer or they won’t. This is changing, this is dying out and I’ve been fortunate with the producers I’ve got but let us and them all remember that this is a job. We both hope that it will also be art, but it’s a job.

I just had a thing where a sudden change meant I needed to find a different producer and I did. But time was tight and I told him straight, if you don’t fancy it, just tell me and I’ll find someone else.

I’ve yet to hear back from him. And there’s little point now as the deadline is gone. What annoys me is that the idea was good and yet it might as well be forgotten forever: there’s a very specific time that this type of thing can be pitched and when that comes around again, even I will think my idea is stale.

We dread rejections but we cope with them. I think some producers dread rejecting us, but for the love og god, get over it and just tell us no. Everybody wants a yes, nobody wants a no, but we can’t do a damn thing without one or the other.

Ideas have their time

I’m working toward various BBC Radio proposals – you get to submit them via producers in what’s called the offers round at certain times of the year – and I’ve done this a lot. The proposals. A lot. I mean, a lot. Quite often an idea will go very far through the process before it becomes clear it isn’t going to fly.

That’s not for any bad reason, it would often enough be that the BBC released notes on what they specifically didn’t want this time around and an idea or two of mine might be exactly one of those. Even then, the usual reason BBC Radio doesn’t want a certain type of idea is that they’ve just done too many of them. But like anything else you do a lot of, you keep doing a lot of them because they work. So sooner or later, they’ll be asking for exactly that type again.


Usually when it’s been suggested that I bump an idea back to next time, whenever next time is, I’ve mentally regarded that as a rejection. I’m not being pessimistic or self-immolating about it, I think it’s factual. Because ideas go stale.

You have a finite time in which the idea is viable and exciting to you. After that, you’re at least struggling to get back the passion or you’re not even struggling, you’re just pretending.

Plus, I think that even the producer who says – and means – to bring it back next time will often not use it then for much the same reason. They’ve got their plate full of new ideas, one from last time will just seem stale.

There are exceptions. I’m involved in one right now. We’ll see how it goes but I’m into it with a passion.

But. Presume that this isn’t going to happen to you, so that you can the better enjoy it when it does. If you have an idea you want to write, write it while you still want to.

Or to put it another way, get on with it.

Why you kill your own ideas

You’ve done this. You’ve thought of something that might be the Next Big Thing – or even is just the Thing You Long To Do. And you don’t do a thing about it so it just never happens. Since we’re writers and it’s often as if there is just something in the air, quite often it does happen and it does get done, just by someone else.

Fast Company writer Courtney Seiter claims there are typically six things that stop her, starting with this:

The No. 1 thing that keeps me from creating is that the idea doesn’t feel complete yet. It lacks something, or I need more examples, or I’m not sure if it’s clear.

A former editor of mine called these “glimmers”—a little spark of an idea, not fully formed but on the cusp of being something. Sometimes you need to let a glimmer sit for a while before it becomes a fully formed idea. Sometimes you can smush it together with a few other glimmers to make something.

The main thing is that idea glimmers need nurturing, which can be hard to do. When ideas are still developing, they can feel embarrassingly incomplete or tough to explain to others. What if my little glimmer is misunderstood or turns out to be nothing at all?

How to fix it: It may seem counterintuitive, but I’ve learned that this is the time to talk about ideas most, so they can grow from a glimmer to a real idea. You can even post it on social media to give it a quick test. So what if the idea might fail? I’ll be able to get feedback right away and know whether to keep thinking on my glimmer or let it go.

6 Ways Your Brain Tries to Kill Your Ideas and How to Fight Them – Courtney Seiter, Fast Company (18 August 2014)

The other five ways include ones you’ll recognise as well as I do: the idea is too hard, we’re too busy, we’re too distracted. The full piece is a meaty examination of these and more with a lot of good ideas for beating them or at least making it more of a fight.

The best idea wins

I’ve been contributing to a Royal Television Society project in the Midlands where schoolkids are asked to pitch ideas to a TV company. (It’s for real, too, this isn’t some paper exercise. I love that the RTS arranges this.) I think I’ve popped in to perhaps five schools, I think the RTS has worked something like ten.

The groups of school kids vary quite widely in number; I went to one that had 150, yesterday I was at one where there were 30. So yesterday’s one had fewer kids and it is quite late on in the process, if I’m right about there having been ten schools in total, I think this was number nine or maybe even number ten. So there have been a lot of schools, a lot of kids, a lot of ideas.

But there was a new one yesterday.

A new idea I hadn’t heard from any of the other schools, a new idea that the RTS told me they hadn’t heard anywhere they’d gone.

There were a lot of good teams in this school and there was one I was rooting for very early on because I thought they were working together very smartly, very professionally. But when I heard this one new idea, I was sold.

The teams had to devise this idea and the perform a pitch. The pitch matters. By the time they get to that stage in the day, I and everyone else has been around every team and every table, we know all the ideas. So I suppose we could huddle in a corner and I could lob in my thruppence. But we sit there like proper judges at the end, watching the kids present their pitches.

There are always some that are good and some that are very poor. Yesterday’s was perhaps a better than average run in that the presentations tended to be good. But a good presentation coupled to a new idea, that is a killer.

The team presenting this new idea had an unfair advantage: the idea was so new that they would have had to really mess up the presentation not to win.

They’ll now be going on to a final contest with that idea next month and it’s then that I’ll hear whether they’re going to get on the telly. But the reason I’m telling you this today is just that one about the idea giving them an advantage. After eight or nine other schools and certainly hundreds, maybe a thousand pupils before them, one team came up with something genuinely new.

I tell you, I was inspired. And as soon as I can tell you their idea, I will.

Ideas come from here. Exactly here. And here.

I’m not a fan. “Oh, JK Rowling’s neighbour had a boy who went to a school, that’s where she got Hogwarts from.” If you can actually trace an idea back to a specific source then either bully for you or where’s the lawsuit? I think it diminishes art to disassemble its parts and claim this bit came from here, that bit was stolen from there.

But since I’m not fussed about Star Wars, bring it on.

Have a production meeting for one

In The Blank Screen book, I argue that there are two types of meeting. I think I was wrong: I think there is or at least there could be a third type and that it is useful. To be clear, the two types were:

  • Pitch meetings where it’s all about you and your work
  • Day job meetings where it’s all about the day job

The first type is the one you want as a writer or any creative person. They are important you work to get as many of those as you can and to make each of them count. The second type is ditchwater-dull sort you are forced to have in your day job and I spend a lot of time in the book covering how you can get out of them and, since you usually can’t, what exactly you can do to make them faster and make them work and keep yourself awake.

You have to meet. But you don’t always have to meet and when you have ten people in a room doing bugger-all and getting nowhere slow, that is a gigantic waste of ten people’s time. I reckon the poster-boy worst example of this kind of thing is what I would often see at the BBC: everybody would gather for a meeting whose sole and entire purpose was for whoever ran it to tell his or her bosses that they had run this meeting.

All of this stands, all of this is true, but I forgot another type of BBC gathering: the production meeting. Sometimes called an editorial meeting. Believe it or not, I still think of them as the budget meeting – there is not one single element of them that is to do with money but that’s what these were called in Lou Grant, the show that made me a writer. (Budget Meeting was the US newspaper term for an editorial meeting and I imagine it comes from how you have a certain amount of space in a newspaper and you are budgeting this much room for that story, that much for this. Certainly these Lou Grant meetings regularly included background detail such as questions about giving this much space on the front page and continuing a story inside.)

These meetings are not about your writing work but they can be. And they are so useful that I’m embarrassed I didn’t mention them. Especially as I think you can use them yourself, you can conjure up a kind of production meeting for yourself.

Production meetings have certain things that are always the same. They are regular, for one thing. Newsrooms and news programmes tend to have them at least daily, almost invariably first thing. They are always focused on the same thing: BBC’s The One Show doubtlessly has a production meeting focused on that day’s edition. Anything that doesn’t belong or can’t go in today’s edition, doesn’t get discussed. Or probably not, anyway.

Then you have specific resources: this many people who can do this much in that time. Anything they can’t do, you don’t do – or you look for outside help, you schedule it all in some way that it becomes manageable over time.

Next, every person in the meeting brings ideas. That sounds so wishy-washy but production meeting ideas are not one-line blue-sky wouldn’t-it-be-nice-to-feature-daffodils-somehow things. They are one-line ideas that have every detail behind them that it would take to get that idea on the screen or on the page. You throw in your idea, if it isn’t liked or you can’t adapt it to one that is, it’s out. If it is or you can, you contribute exactly how it can be done. Or more likely, you just go off and do it.

Take a look at the BBC’s own requirements for ideas that get pitched at news production meetings. When ideas die, it’s a lot of wasted work. But when they fly, you’re ready to go. And the process works not just because the better ideas rise to the top in these meetings but because working at them this way gets you thinking of better ideas to pitch.

Last, production meetings almost always include some kind of diary discussion. Very broadly, there are two types of ideas discussed at a production meeting: diary items and non-diary items. There is always someone whose job it is to maintain the diary: not of where you and your colleagues are but of what is happening. I’ve worked in entertainment news so a diary I’d know would have things like press previews for this film today, that celebrity is in town Friday, this book is coming out next Thursday.

The BBC maintains the most exhaustive diary of everything that any news programme could want to know but your team knows what to take from that and your team also runs their own. Then non-diary items are everything else. If Coronation Street got cancelled, that would be news and it would never be a diary item: there’s no circumstance in which ITV would let journalists know that it will be cancelling Corrie in three weeks’ time. They could try, but you suspect the story would be written about instantaneously, don’t you?

It happens that this week I have a meeting about one event, I actually have an event, and there are some discussions about at least one other confirmed and one other possible gig for later in the year. My mind’s been going through what I need to bring to the meeting, what I need other people to agree to. And I’ve realised that my mind has been going through exactly what it used to with production meetings.

I miss them. I’ll be honest with you, I miss the rigour of having to come up with ideas, pitch them to a group and then either get them or be assigned some other idea to do my best with.

And it occurs to me that I could, perhaps I should, and probably I shall run some little production meetings of my own. Just for me. God, that sounds lonely and pathetic. But I think it might be useful.

I have diary and non-diary items to get done, for instance. This week should be devoted to the events but actually it can’t be, I have to do other things too so I have issues of resources and time.

I also have the shape of the week. When you work in radio or television you are conscious of time in a slightly different way: you think about the top of the hour, you think about your third-hour guest. You know you have to have a news bulletin at this point, you know you should start the show with a bang and that it would be good to finish with one too. I have the week where I know when my events are so I know what has to come before those, I know what I will have to postpone until afterwards.

And I know all this because my noggin’ just worked it all out while I was talking to you. So thank you for that – and I hope you find production meetings useful for your work too.

Mixing sound and vision to get the full picture

I’m a very visual kind of man but, awkwardly, what I visualise is text. I can see words. If you and I are talking, I can choose to see your words as text. Squint a bit and there it is, word by word, white text on a black background, right in front of my eyes. It’s great for transcriptions. But text is so much a par of me and I am so much a writer through and through that I have ignored other visual ways of looking at detail. Okay, maybe I can see scenes visually when I’m reading or writing a script, but when faced with a problem, I used to always just think it through. More recently, I’ve written it down and thought it through.

But then last week, I had a meeting that was intentionally nebulous. It was clearly a chance to pitch something, but I didn’t know what and I was fairly sure that there were no specifics behind the invitation either. It would be up to me and what I could bring to the meeting.

And I mind-mapped it.

Slapped down everything I could think of that even considered crossing my mind in the week before the meeting. I used MindNode for iPad (£6.99 UK, $9.99 US) so it was with me wherever I went and by the morning of the meeting, I had a completely useless mess. But it was a big mess. Lots of things on it. And I started dragging bits around. This stuff sorta, kinda belonged with those bits over there. This one was daft. That one was actually part of my shopping list and I’d just put it in the wrong app.

And then I’d find one that ignited another small idea so I’d add that.

After a bit of adding and subtracting and moving around, I had three or four solid blocks of ideas that were related. I exported the lot from MindNode to OmniOutliner for iPad (£20.99 UK, $29.99 US) which picked it all up and showed it to me as a hierarchy of text lines instead of a visual bubble of blogs. I work better with text, I may have mentioned this, so that was perfect for me.

Nearly perfect. I really wanted to then hand the lot on from OmniOutliner to OmniFocus, my To Do manager, (iPad £27.99 UK$39.99 US). I wanted to be able to tick off the ideas as I got through them in the meeting. I wasn’t able to do that on the iPad; I suspect that it’s something that needs me to use OmniOutliner on my Mac (from £34.99 UK, from $49.99 US). I’ve got that and I use it ever increasingly more, but I wasn’t at my office.

So instead I stayed with the text in OmniOutliner. Made some more changes and additions, moved some more things around. And then I worked from that list in the meeting and it went really, really well.

The whole process went well: the mind mapping on to the meeting itself. Enough so that afterwards I tried mind mapping again, this time to figure out what I’m doing with everything, not just this one meeting. I’m still working on it. But it’s proving useful. And while I can’t show you the meeting mind map as it’s naturally confidential, and I obviously can’t show you this new mind map of everything because it’s in progress, I can show you a blurry version. This is what I’m doing now: