How to make yourself heard: an interview with Baratunde Thurston

Baratunde Thurston talks about his Web Summit experiences, how Early Stage Startups can find their company’s unique voice and capture the public’s attention, and the beauty of the Hackathon…

Baratunde, before we begin, would you like to give a short introduction?

I always like to start by talking about my latest project. In that case it’s fuckyoucongress.com. I’m the Co-founder and CEO of a company called Cultivated Wit, and we, along with design studio I Shot Him, created this site as a gift to the American people in response to historic levels of Congressional ineptitude. The 3 founders of our company all used to work for The Onion and saw an opportunity to further combine humour and technology to create more interesting stories and fun products. Essentially, Cultivated Wit is both a comedy-centric digital marketing agency as well as a product development studio. Our most public work exists in the form of our Comedy Hack Day event series which is like a developer hackathon but far better because we involve comedians, and every project has the goal of being funny.

It’s great to have you back as a speaker for the Web Summit this year. What will you look forward to most, and who will you look forward to meeting?

I’ll look forward to meeting folks from Ireland in particular, and Europe a bit more. Last year my time here was too rushed. I was raced to the hotel, straight to the arena, and on to the stage. I felt like the president, but with no security and no real responsibility. This year I have more time to hear from the other people attending.

With regard to speakers, I’m looking forward to hearing Padmasree Warrior (because of that name!), Tim Armstrong of AOL, and Jessica Lessin. I’m particularly interested in hearing what Jessica has to say because, like me, she left a larger organization to strike out on her own. Why would someone ever leave the Wall Street Journal? I’d be interested to hear what she’s learned since founding jessicalessin.com. Gary Vaynerchuk is always good to hear and learn from too. He’s one of the realest speakers I’ve ever seen and sugarcoats nothing. So I’ll hear as much as possible at the Web Summit and then hope to grab a pint with a few people afterwards.

Are there any topics that you feel are of particular importance, that you will be discussing or that you hope will be discussed by speakers and panelists at this year’s Web Summit?

Baratunde Fast Company

A thousand topics! One broad topic is growth in the conscientious use and consumption of technology. I was recently on the cover of an issue of Fast Company in which I published an article about unplugging. This article opened the floodgates for people who said, “I want to do that too”. In our race to get wired up there is a price to be paid, and we have to ask ourselves how we are thinking about downtime and disconnection.

Another topic is one that people like Jessica Lessin represent. There’s a level of closing the gap on what it means to be a personal brand (a term I despise). Having a direct personal relationship with viewers, listeners and readers on a public platform is more or less expected these days, but how you make that financially sound is still not clear.

Thirdly, I’m hoping to hear anything smart. At any conference you’re going to hear a lot of things that you already know or can easily read about in a short blog post. Most of the value isn’t on the stage. I’m interested in tuning into the smart conversation that gives an insight into the world that we’re creating, and that conversation is probably happening in the hallway or nearby pub.

Moving on to your work at Cultivated Wit, you mentioned previously that the company believes in combining humour and technology to create more interesting stories. Can you talk a bit about why you think this new way of understanding and interacting is important?

Cultivated Wit

Understanding is always important. If we don’t have it there’s no trust, and anything that can aid understanding can reduce conflict. With what’s going on in the world we require more of this. When we’re overwhelmed with data and information, but we’re not necessarily gaining any more knowledge and insight.

There are countless outlets for opinion. and we’re setting ourselves up for a potentially chaotic nonsensical future where everyone yells and no one listens. People are retreating into what they know they like rather than trying new things that they might like. Humour softens these lines. By adding humour, we gain a new level of exposure to ideas we might not naturally seek out.

You’ve just given startups all this food for thought. How can they make use of this information to improve their engagement with the public?

The most undersold benefit of our networked future is the ability to listen. There’s a heavy obsession with what we are going to say and how we’re going to talk, but  the ability to listen is profound. With that power we can stay connected to the people. Without it we lose credibility and authenticity.

Startup Presentation

For an Early Stage Startup, the first big step on the road to success is grabbing people’s attention and making them want to listen to what you have to say. What can a startup do to find their own unique voice, and express their aims in a way that will capture people’s attention?

I have an overarching rule on this point: it’s really helpful for companies to think of themselves as characters or actors in play or film. Instead of thinking, “What does this particular announcement say?” the company should be thinking, “What would this character say, or do? How would the character respond?” The response could be affected by the character’s accent, likes, dislikes, hairstyle, fashion, etc. Think: What is the character of my company? By answering this you will answer a lot of other questions too. Think about voice as more than just explicit releases of content and more than something visible on a Twitter stream or email list. A company’s voice is found in every interaction. It’s found in your newsletter, your terms of services, your icon in the app store. Every cell is an expression of your company’s character. Once you’ve defined the character, think about consistency across every possible touch point and not simply about what channels you’re using (as per traditional marketing). This is a universal lesson that can be applied to everyone.

Finally, if you want to be heard, then pay attention to what people are already listening to. Insert yourself into that stream, whether it’s a political, sports, or musical theme that has emerged. Your job is not to simply steal people’s attention. Marketing shouldn’t have to be that aggressive. Your job is to make yourself relevant to everyone else. Put yourself in their line of attention.

What are your thoughts on the importance of social media literacy? Especially for young companies, what level of familiarity do they need in order to have a fighting chance?

It’s important, obviously, but the first thing that a company should think about is what they’re actually making/building/selling. Does it have intrinsic worth? That’s the first question to check off the list. It should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: make something worthwhile.

As for social media literacy, consider this. Someone said to me recently, “I’ve heard 2014 is the year of video, should we have a video strategy?” Every year is the year of video. Moving images aren’t going away, but does it make sense for your company to invest in video heavily? To that, I’d suggest you investigate widely and make use of the numbers. Combine instinct and analysis. Once you know the answer, kill it and own it and be yourself. You could have the best YouTube strategy and it doesn’t matter if you’re faking it.

Another way to think about social media literacy is this: what’s your company’s telephony strategy? Does that even make sense? Would you have a “phone specialist” within your company who’s responsible for determining how everyone answers calls and who routes inbound and outbound transmissions? Would you have just one person or department that pushed the keypad buttons on your phone? It’s ridiculous. We’re headed toward a world in which “social media” will cease to exist as some sort of specialized function. It will just be part of how we live, as individuals and as businesses. If you had an employee who didn’t know how to use a phone, you and that employee would have some explaining to do. I think social media is headed in that direction, so literacy in that area should become ubiquitous.

Are there any creative engagement strategies that stood out to you during your time at The Onion – or at any time in your career – as being particularly effective or interesting?

Between work at The Onion and work on my book, ‘How to be Black’, I learned that giving people the opportunity to share their own version of a thing is hugely successful. People are egomaniacs. Political science offers us a truth that extends beyond the world of politics: “Its never really about the politician; it’s about the people.” Everything is politics. So, catering to the people’s desire to play a part is essential. When I was at The Onion we did a piece on Osama Bin Laden where the front cover showed him rising from the ocean. We played that story out into the most elaborate way, asking the public “Have you spotted Osama Bin Laden?” It succeeded in engaging people and getting them to play along, and this wasn’t even real! Make sure to leave your campaign incomplete and open-ended so that you can let people fill in their own versions of the story.

Cultivated Wit runs regular Comedy Hack Days, and we’re running an all-day Hackathon at the Web Summit, where the worlds expert engineers, designers, product builders and entrepreneurs will come together to solve global problems. What do you think about the Hackathon as a powerful medium for creativity?

The beauty of the Hackathon is that it’s limited in time. It’s not a 5 year commitment, it’s just a day or a weekend. These limits can be very liberating and force you to get something out quickly. The other thing I’ve learned from running our own Comedy Hack Day is that there is a finesse and art to the pairing. When you’re matching the designer to the coder there’s a sort of speed dating element to it. Most people won’t know each other well enough to match themselves so it’s up to the co-ordinator to keep a lookout. The creativity at a hackathon often comes from unexpected connection and collaboration between people, so facilitating that process is key. Whiskey helps.

Baratunde Thurston is the CEO, co-founder, and hashtagger-in-chief of Cultivated Wit. He wrote the New York Times bestseller ‘How To Be Black’ and served for five years as director of digital for the satirical news outlet, The Onion. This year, Baratunde will be speaking on the Web Summit Digital Stage. He will also be judging Web Summit’s PITCH competition (15:20 – 16:20, 30th October, PITCH Stage 1). You can tune in to watch Baratunde’s upcoming interview on RTE’s ‘The Saturday Night Show’ (2nd November 2013), and watch Baratunde’s talk at the 2012 Web Summit here:

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