Tag Archive for Corporate blogging

Braving Paris—by Bicycle (Part I)

Ever since George Gershwin penned his rhapsody to Paris, An American in Paris, with its car horns and street chaos vividly set to music, we’ve believed that Paris would not be the place for a non-Parisian to drive, much less cycle. Fast forward to the 21st century with the environment and the economy spinning out of control, and cycling here looks much more attractive. Gone is the traffic chaos—wrong. It’s still there, perhaps more so, but now there are many more advantages to the drawbacks for experienced urban cyclists.

Cycling in Paris – Are You Ready?

If you find Vancouver cycling harrowing, this article is not for you. This article is for the intrepid cyclist who’d like to experience the City of Lights using the lightest for of transport—the bicycle. Here, I’ll describe how to use Velib’, the city-wide bicycle service that is easy to use (with a few tips I learned) and very, very cheap.

Velib’ introduced a municipal service a few years ago that has become popular with Parisians. You’ll see the distinctive solid-built cyclists used by everyone—business men, shoppers, students, lovers, and intrepid tourists like me.

Velib’s Usability Challenges

Setting up a pass at the Velib’ stop near my hotel turned out to be very difficult, and it wasn’t a language difficulty. After several attempts to understand its lexicon, I finally asked a very helpful Parisian who, not understanding it himself, called Velib’ headquarters and we finally got it working. There are several design flaws that make it hard to use. This is what I found:

  • Velib’ is designed for local users who buy year-long passes. One can buy a one-day or six-day pass, but it’s very difficult—even locals can’t figure it out.
  • The self-serve kiosk by the bikes has input on one side and a screen with directions on the other. This means you have to jump around to follow its logic.
  • The other language options don’t carry through, so even when I started in English, the machine seems to forget my language choice and part way through, revert to French. In the end, I gave up on English and used the French. At least it’s consistent.
  • The procedure times out too quickly. After keying my way through five screens, I’m presented with a policy screen to read (in French), which times out before I through it. I have to start again.
  • Occasionally, it just doesn’t work for any apparent reason. I learned a lot about patience with this machine.

Taking a Bicycle

My suggestion is that you buy your pass on their web site. It’s easy to use. You can buy a six-day or one-day pass and it provides you with the code you’ll need to sign out a bicycle. Armed with a code, the kiosk is very easy to use (really):

  1. Enter the code it provided.
  2. Enter the four-character passcode you set up on the web site.
  3. Accept responsibility for the bicycle. Press V which stands of valider, not voila! as I’d imagined.
  4. Enter the number of the bicycle you want (I always start by checking a bicycle’s tires and brakes and memorizing the number of the one I prefer. In Velib’ parlance, a broken bicycle is identified by turning the seat backwards).
  5. Press the button at the stand of the selected bicycle and pull it back—hard. Sometimes they’re sticky.
  6. Allez! Remember, your first half hour is free so off you go.

Getting around Paris

As I stated earlier, cycling in Paris is not for the faint of heart, but take heart, it is very doable. Here are some tips that I learned to stay safe.

  • The first time you take a bicycle, make navigation and cycling your first priority. Save sightseeing until you get more comfortable. For me, it took a couple of days.
  • Follow the rules of the road. Don’t run red lights and so forth. In Paris, you don’t know what direction traffic comes from (scooters out of alleyways, trucks parked on the bike path—it’s madness.
  • Some one-way streets (but not all) allow cyclist to cycle against the traffic (watch for sauf cyclists – except cyclists) on the one-way signs.
  • Parisians tend to follow the spirit of the law, rather than us who follow the letter of the law. This is why you’ll sometimes see motorcyclists on sidewalks and trucks parked on the cycle routes. Other than going a half block up a one-way street that doesn’t permit cyclists to do so, I was pretty strict with the laws.
  • Part of the chaos of Paris streets comes from motor cycles and scooters. They fly around you and force their way in at any opportunity. As a cyclist, you need to be almost as aggressive if you want to get anywhere. This doesn’t contradict my previous obey-all-laws commandment. Paris drivers are a lot more aggressive—it’s expected. If you’re too timid, you’ll be out of flow with the traffic and Paris traffic is all about flow—that’s what the spirit of the law is about.

The bells on the Velib’ bicycles are a joke—nobody could possibly hear you. Be prepared to call out in French. Here’s my cycling vocabulary:

  • Pardon – please make room for me or sorry for what I just did.
  • Attendez! – Wait! I’m coming through
  • Attention! – Watch out!
  • Merci – Thanks

Next post…Velib’ in Paris II

Securing your iPhone (and self) on the road

A few days ago, I was enjoying un petit-déjeuner in a café at Place Stravinsky (Beaubourg beside The Pompidou Centre), when a group of six 12-year-old Roma (gypsy) girls tried to steal my iPhone. It’s a common trick they use, which usually catches the tourists—like me—off guard.

The girls all came together in a rush into the cafe holding documents for us to read. At first I thought they were soliciting for some charity and I said “no”—three times. What I didn’t notice with the girl at my table—who was very agressive—was that she’d moved the paper over my iPhone I’d just placed on the table. While I was looking her in the eyes, she snatched my phone from under the paper. After they’d left, I looked down and couldn’t remember if my phone had been on the table or still in my jacket. Fortunately, I noticed quickly enough and, with the help of two waiters, we caught two of the girls and called the police. Eventually, we all went for a ride across town to L’hotel de Police.

I have my iPhone back in my hands and have taken extra caution to ensure that, if it falls into the wrong hands, the data is protected:

iPhone settingsWhen my iPhone was snatched, the security was turned off. I’d turned it off while taking photos in Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. I don’t want to say how much valuable information was on my iPhone, but it was pretty much tantamount to stealing my wallet. I’ve now turned on the Passcode Lock and I manually lock the phone even while I’m holding it. Otherwise, it’s buried deep in my pocket unless I specifically need it for something.

I have two apps that are good even if I hadn’t used the OS settings to lock it.

The first is called Find iPhone, which allows me to find (on a map), lock, and even wipe all data remotely using a web browswer. It is native to the iPhone interface, but you need an iCloud account set up to work it properly.

My iPhone foundHad I not acted more quickly, I could have used a computer to log in, find my iPhone on a map, and hopefully send the police to retrieve it. At right is a screen shot of my iPhone found using a web interface. It remains to be seen whether police could do anything with this information as it only points to the building in which there are at least 25 apartments.

I also downloaded the highly recommended paid app, My Folder, which I thought would be more useful, but I think it’s designed for deceitful couples intent on hiding information from each other. Even the icon is designed to look like a private folder to lure your jealous partner into opening it—upon which it takes a photo of the intruder and sends its coordinates.

My Folder doubles the functions of Find iPhone in other respects so I don’t think this one’s necessary—at least not for me.

Now, I’m much more careful with my phone and I also have a money belt. It’s not that Paris is unsafe or that I’m paranoid; it’s just that I’ve realized how disadvantaged I’d be trying to manage without these key items so far from home.

Yesterday, while enjoying the view of the Eiffel Tower from the Grande Palais (a popular tourist hang out), a dark eyed woman offered me a gold ring she “found” at my feet. I didn’t accept it at first, but when I did, she immediately began asking me for money “un peu pour manger” she begged. I turned the tables on her by asking a passing couple if they were the owners of the ring and they, knowing better, turned on her. Wahoo, I’m getting street wise in Paris.

Doing the Right Thing

Yesterday, I toured the Basilica de Saint-Denis in the Paris suburb of the same name. Why, on my first day in Paris, I would visit the suburbs may be a mystery to some, but I wanted to start at the beginning and in terms of basilicas and Paris and indeed France, this is where it all begins. Saint Denis is the patron saint of France and his remains are interred here along with those of a great deal of France’s royalty from Dagobert to Marie-Antoinette.

I started in Saint-Denis not just to see the gothic church that inspired all others—Saint-Denis’s firsts include its beautiful rose windows, and its pointed arches—but I think there’s an anti-revolutionary spirit in me. I know that revolutions never replace an ancien regime with anything better, if the revolutionaries do not live the qualities they aspire to. It’s always an inside job. Gandhi had it right.

Over the last few months, I’ve been given the opportunity to place my values in front of my needs and am the better for it. There is a business application for this that I embrace—it has to do with doing what’s right. Here are three examples:

  • At the tail end of a contract, my manager was let go and I ended with four days of my time owing to the company. Later, the replacement manager asked me if he could hire me back. This is common sense, but while I could have signed a new contract and never mentioned the four days owing (nobody but me would have known), I offered up my four days. As the new manager didn’t know what sort of budget he had, this was enormously helpful, and later paved the way for him to hire me back for an additional four-month contract. Honesty is its own reward.
  • Likewise, I quoted 24 hours to a client to copy edit his 30-page financial report. I must be getting good at copy editing because the entire job (including the copy edit and designing a new template and style sheet), took me only 6 hours. With the previous example of integrity in my head, it was easy to ignore the little devil on my shoulder and bill only my working hours, not the proposed contracted hours.
  • Finally, a fellow musician in Montreal put out a panicked message to all her clarinet-playing colleagues on facebook for a certain part of music she needed. I responded that I was too busy packing for my trip to help her. During the day though, I kept thinking about that rare clarinet part and gradually found that it was easy to locate it in a box of my music, scan the section she wanted, optimize it into a compressed PDF, and finally post it to my site where she could download it.

The fascinating part for me was not that I did these things, but that they got done simply by me not resisting their accomplishment. I under-promised and over-delivered.

Basilica Saint-Denis

Where it all begins

Communication – How to Keep your Clients Happy

I sit in cafés watching the patrons tapping away at their laptops or PDAs and wonder how many of them are billing hours for their labours. If they are, I also wonder how they maintain communication with their clients. Are they off in a dream of worker freedom or are they providing value for their clients at least as effectively as if they were in the corporate office?

Having worked from home as both employee and contractor, I know that the only way it can be effective is if I can ensure that the trust between me and my clients (boss) is rock solid. How I do that is through communication. Below are some of the communication tools I’m using:

Skype Skype is a software application that allows users to make voice calls over the Internet. It’s one of my favourite tools—so much so that I often use it during business hours in Vancouver to save my cell phone minutes. Last year, when I was in Portugal, I found that the Skype connection on my iPod (needs WiFi) was better than on the laptop.
Google Talk Google Chat is good because your clients can contact you on a moment’s notice (provided you both have it open). By seeing I’m online and available, my clients can have the assurance that I’m working on their projects, etc. etc.
Cell Phone Want to run your laptop and phone abroad and not sure what to do? I was in Foreign Electronics the other day picking up a power adapter and they advised me to remove the SIM card from my phone on arrival in France and just use my phone for WiFi only. I’ve already ensured that all the hotels where I’m staying have WiFi, so if I need to talk, I can use Skype. If I want a cell phone, I can pick up a local SIM card (check that your phone accepts one – my iPhone 5 doesn’t).
Web Texting Most cell providers, such Roger’s, allow you to send and receive text messages through their web site free. So, if you’re working very remotely from, say, the south of France, you’ll want to keep your texting as low cost as possible.

Five In-The-Cloud Tools for the Successful Corporate Blogger

In preparation for my new life as an itinerant corporate web writer, blogging my way through Europe, I need to ensure that I have all my cloud resources in place before I leave. Fortunately, I have a plethora of tools that help me keep track of information, track my time and expenses, stay on top of writing trends, and so forth.

Here are my top-five cloud tools:

Dropbox Store your files where you can retrieve them from anywhere. You can also invite others to share specified folders and work on files with no need to upload or download files. A must for anyone on the move.
Evernote This is similar to Dropbox except that instead of saving entire files, it allows you to save key pieces of information. I use Evernote because it syncs effortlessly with Awesome Note on my iPhone so I can check travel arrangements or simply drop in thoughts for later.
Mint.com Aggregate all your finance information into one place. This doesn’t allow you to conduct transactions; it’s designed to help you if you have multiple accounts or credit cards so you can get an overview of all transactions. I use this on a daily basis to check that all is well.
CMOS The Chicago Manual of Style online is a great resource for writers. It provides all the information you’ll need for grammar, word usage, styles, citations, and more.
Visual Thesaurus I use this excellent resource to help me brainstorm words visually. Enter a word and it shows homonyms, synonyms, antonyms…the works as a branched infographic that you can click through until you find just the right word.

 

3 Steps to Planning Your Corporate Blog

In my first post on this subject, I described how I re-organized my life to become a world traipsing corporate blogger. It’s forward looking as I haven’t flown the coop yet, but soon I will be in France writing for my clients back here in Vancouver. How is this possible? Research, planning, communication.

I need to get up to speed on disability claims and liability in an area where I know little. How am I going to do it? Here is what I’ve learned so far:

  1. Get connected – there are lots of online resources I can draw from. For example, LinkedIn has great groups on the very subject I’m suddenly interested in—legal blogging. I’ve joined a few groups and I’m reading the content and making notes about what I find.
  2. Get organized – this is no place to be disorganized. I’ve used my standard timetracking software to track my time and plan ahead. I use Excel, but you can try Billing Boss, because it also allows you to invoice your clients.
  3. Set up subject matter alerts – there are a few questions here, but what you need are some keywords that you can use to create some effective news alerts in Google. When you know the best words (I’ll blog about that soon), go to Google News and enter them. At the bottom of the results screen, click Create an email alert for [your keywords] and follow the prompts.

Lest this blog get to be too dry, here’s an inspiring quote for all concerned: “Cherish your visions and your dreams as they are the children of your soul; the blueprints of your ultimate achievements.”
— Napoleon Hill

My New Book: “How I blogged my way through Europe”

Currently, only my friends know that I’m going to be working in Europe this winter. “How?” they ask. “Savings”, I say. Well, savings and ruthless cunning.

I took the summer off to quiet down and think about my future. I did little other than teach my technical writing courses at BCIT and study jazz clarinet. Under the placid surface, though, I was trying to figure out how I could work in Europe. This went back and forth for a while and it looked like I’d just have to go there first and start talking to people and perhaps plan on a miracle.

I was also talking with people in Vancouver about various types of work and I’ve been finding a bit of a perfect storm in which my technical writing and marketing copy writing meet as a powerful sales tool. Did you know there’s a large market for corporate bloggers with technical writing skills and a handle on social networking tools?

I’m now attracting companies that need to make their blogs and web sites look like, well, like someone’s home there. That’s where I come in. I write. And I research a lot about industries I never imagined I’d have to know anything about. The coolest part is I can do this writing from home. And, I reasoned, if I can do it from home, why not from the south of France?

And that’s just what I’m doing in a few short weeks. Living in France and blogging about companies in Vancouver. So you ask, “how did you do it?” C’est si simple, n’est-çe pas?

Oh, and savings helps too. I’ve been stowing away funds in my ING account and have amassed a small fortune.  Since signing up four years ago, I’ve earned $423.72 in interest alone?

If you haven’t switched to a no-fee, high interest bank yet, why not?

Writing a corporate blog

I recently wrote a corporate blog and came upon some interesting considerations. It’s one thing to write a blog for one’s own site, but to write on behalf of someone else (i.e., a company) is another matter. There’s of course the matter of style and tone, but what is appropriate especially if there are no clear guidelines.

You may have to spin things slightly to represent the best interests of your employer, but don’t be insincere—people sense it. The story I wrote, Iridium satellites not affected my recent solar storms, concerned the effects of recent solar storms on the company’s GPS location-based tracking services. I realized that it was important not to represent their technology as vulnerable or the solar storms as alarmist.

Here’s what I came up with:

  • Focus on the positive – plays down concerns in the title
  • In first sentence, I use end focus to draw attention to reliability of products/services of company “…has had no affect on Iridium satellites”.
  • I chose a beautiful and re-assuring image of the aurora borealis, instead of something that might cause concern.
  • I was given permission to use images found on the internet (always something to consider), but because I didn’t think the site where I found this image was one I wanted to highlight, I buried the source credit in the code for the image.