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How to Moderate a VIP Panel

February 24, 2010 11 comments

Heather & me (see my listening face?)

I had a ball at the Mom 2.0 Summit in Houston last week. The highlight? Moderating  a VIP panel – or perhaps I should say VIB (Very Important Blogger) – and living to tell the tale.  Did I mention Heather (aka Dooce) Armstrong was one of those panelists? More on that in a minute.

Here’s how it went down. I had submitted a panel idea to the conference organizers about “Bloggers, Brands and the New Publishing Paradigm.” The topic sprang from a post I wrote last year about how marketers and PR people need to rethink how they approach bloggers; it got nice response and you can read it here.  I was jazzed when the idea was accepted and designated the closing keynote panel.  I figured I’d be one of the panelist and that was great.

Several weeks later I got a note from Laura Mayes (one of the Mom 2.0 organizers and a thoroughly spectacular human being) that I’m actually going to be the moderator and the other panelists will be announced shortly.  I’m excited and just a teeny bit anxious because good moderating takes some prep and I now need to work this into my hot mess of a schedule.

Another couple of days goes by and then I see this In Laura’s Twitter stream:

 

Zoink. I’m moderating three of the most popular bloggers known to man including Heather Armstrong who (for those of you who don’t know) is arguably one of the most famous (and often controversial) bloggers in the galaxy?

My moderator prep anxiety has now gone defcon level 5. And here’s where I must make a confession. I’m a pretty cool cucumber when it comes to professional stuff but you know who gives me the willies? Male CEOs and Very Important Lady Bloggers. Don’t ask me to explain, it’s complicated and for all I know rooted in Freudian issues. Suffice it to say I was nervous about reaching out to Heather, Maggie and Gabrielle to get the ball rolling on panel prep.

But I did and in my neurotic  hyper-organized way — as if preparing an important client for a presentation — start hurling emails into the ether with suggestions about discussion topics and Q & A and conference calls…want to guess how well that went?

Right. Not terribly. 

Very Important Lady Bloggers are important for a reason. They are busy. They are focused on their blogs (which are their businesses) and their families. With three weeks to go before the conference my anal-retentive discussion guides were not yet a priority in their minds.

Well, they were MY priority and there’s the problem. I was not reading my audience. I was prepping on my terms, not theirs. Which leads me to the most important advice I can offer to anyone preparing to moderate a VIP panel:

It’s not about you. It’s about them.

I don’t care how fancy-pants you are, if you’re moderating a big-deal panel you will be eclipsed. As it should be. You are not the headliner, you are the facilitator who if you’re smart will make the headliners look great.

Cutting to the chase, I will tell you the panel went off really well. It all came together perfectly (if not a little last-minute.) Heather, Maggie and Gabrielle were lovely, created content that made the presentation visual and dynamic, and generally rocked the dais.

Moderating a panel of this stature is kind of like being a jockey – or maybe a rodeo rider is a better analogy (we were in Texas, after all). You climb onboard that filly and do your best to stay on. You listen, you listen some more, you roll with the punches and adjust the questions based on the flow of the discussion. You take the mike only to ask the next question or to clarify a point.

You are not the show. Did I mention already that it’s about them, not you?

I’ve been in the audience for panels where the moderator hogged the spotlight. I’ve been on the panel when the moderator ceded control of the discussion to unruly audiences. My goal was to make sure neither of those things happened and based on the crowd reaction, I think we just may have accomplished it.

Fiona Bryan live-blogged the panel here if you want to check it out.

[Image via Sarah Hubbell]

UPDATE:  More great posts about Mom 2.0 from women a) I want to be when I grow up except that I’m older than all of them; b) should come to my house for a slumber party so I can braid their hair and c) I am inspired by constantly…

Gabrielle “Design Mom” Blair (from the aforementioned panel) here

Maggie “Mighty Girl” Mason (also from aforementioned panel) here  

Liz “Mom 101” Gumbiner here

Jenny “The Bloggess” Lawson (who my god I love so much it makes my eyeballs hurt) posted not once but twice

In Praise of Mouthy Housewives

February 12, 2010 1 comment

How come when I’m asked to post at someone else’s blog the words flow freely from my fingers? It’s kind of like how I don’t mind doing the Thanksgiving dishes when it’s someone else’s house. Everyday tasks are more enjoyable when I’m doing them on someone else’s turf.

The Mouthy Housewives hang out on pretty awesome turf. Their advice site is hilarious and smart and kind of like having your best (funniest) girlfriend sitting on your shoulder 24/7 whispering encouragement and wisdom in your ear. I first encountered Wendi and Kelcey, two of the four Mouthy Housewives, at the BlogHer Humor panel last year. I was struck dumb by their brilliance, or maybe by the sauna-like heat in the panel room. I’m not sure which. It’s a quick hop and a skip from Wendi and Kelcey to Marinka who not only is wicked funny but is Russian. As any regular reader of this blog knows, I have a soft spot for Russians. Though Russian women scare the s*** out of me so maybe Marinka was sent my way to help me sort through my issues.  As for Heather, I have not yet connected with her personally but she quotes Nietzche and Jung on her home page. And says bad words. Which makes her a well-read badass, so naturally I want to be her best friend. 

You can imagine my delight The Mouthy Housewives invited me to guest advise because while I am not a housewife I am seriously mouthy. And I have been known to wear curlers though mine are velcro not foam because I’m quite modern that way. Here’s the post. I enjoyed doing it though I’m still afraid of lady bloggers who quote Nietzche, Russian women and people who appear on fancy BlogHer panels. I think the Housewives owe it to me to let me hang out with them more so I can sort out these issues, don’t you?

Categories: Blogging, Russians Tags: , , , ,

I Can’t Believe I’m in Dubai

January 20, 2010 10 comments

I’ve been trying to write this post since I got to Dubai two days ago but words keep failing me. I fancy myself a sophisticated traveler but nothing prepared me for this place. It’s not just the opulence (which is outrageous), it’s more the sheer FOREIGNESS of it. There are only a few places on this planet I never thought I’d see in my lifetime, and the Middle East is one of them. Moreso in a post-9/11 world. And yet — here I am. I awoke at one point during the 12 hour flight over here and saw on the on-screen flight tracker that we were flying right over Baghdad.  That’s when it hit me. I was really on my way to the United Arab Emirates. I’ve been farther away from home before (my husband’s home city of Chelyabinsk, Russia) — but nothing has felt as far away from home as Dubai.

And yet.

As part of yesterday’s itinerary (I’m here in meetings with my Olay client) we venture into a residential neighborhood to spend time with a Dubai local woman to discuss her skin care routine. Her name is Rasheed and she isn’t much older than I am. She welcomes us into her beautiful home, introduces us to her dimpled 12-year old daughter, serves us juice and coffee. And then we talk through a translator for an hour. About skin care, of course, but also about feeling beautiful, about husbands and kids, about keeping house, about working and getting to the gym. Rasheed is eager to show us her yard, the pheasants and chickens she keeps, her lime and mango trees, the patio that’s under renovation.

I notice tall pots of alyssium, a sweetly-fragrant flower I plant along my borders each spring many, many miles away in New Jersey. It’s the sight of those flowers in their carefully tended pots that gets me. Rasheed and I love the same flowers.

Same way we love our kids and our husbands, and playing with beauty products, and enjoying a chat over coffee.

Maybe not so foreign after all. Imagine that.

 

I created a Whrrl story about my visit here.

Categories: Clients, Culture, Work Tags: , , , ,

The Bra Color Meme: So What?

January 8, 2010 19 comments

So this was me at 5:32 PM last night on Facebook.

 

 

If you’re a chick, I bet you had your own “what up with all the colors on Facebook statuses?” moment yesterday.  And, like me, you probably had your little moment of epiphany: 

 

 

 

As I think many of us now know, someone somewhere invited women to share their bra color on Facebook yesterday without public explanation, all by way of spreading breast cancer awareness (Mashable speculates on the origins of the meme here.)

 

I actually adore this idea – it does everything a viral campaign should. We saw, we questioned, we buzzed, we laughed, we passed it on. And it was a uniquely chick-ish “social object” to be passing, wasn’t it? Our bra color, for god’s sake. Intimate but not embarrassing, a way to express individuality (I’m talking to you, animal-print ladies) and sisterly solidarity at the same time. And kind of keep the boys out, except when the boys themselves started playing along. Which is hilarious and alarming in equal parts.

 

BUT. As a cause-related effort? Not as successful. Feels like there was a big missed opportunity here. I’ve done a bit of cause marketing in my time and subscribe to a cardinal rule: tell people what they can do to make a tangible difference.  The bra meme got the hard part out of the way – it got us buzzing. It just needed to connect the dots and give us the tools to make a difference.

 

Is it because this was a grassroots effort started by a woman without ties to one breast cancer organization? Possibly, and fair enough. Was it just intended to “create awareness” without any other call-to-action? Again – possibly (though breast cancer is hardly a disease which needs to be put on the map.) For me, if you gave me a shortened link to share along with my color on Facebook and Twitter which let people click through to make a donation or sign a petition or something else concrete – done and done. I would’ve shared it gladly and hopefully made a measurable contribution to the fight against a disease which has touched every single one of us.

 

So did you participate in the bra meme? If you’re a marketer or PR person, how would you have handled it as part of a cause campaign? 

Thanks to my Twitter pal @karinatweedell for sending the Mashable post and holding my hand as I struggled to understand what all those damned colors meant.

In Which JumpStart Allows Me to Review their Product

December 1, 2009 8 comments

I was contacted recently by the team at Knowledge Adventure, creators of the well-known JumpStart educational game software. They had released a virtual online world earlier this year; would I let my six-year old son test drive it and provide feedback? And would I share my perspective on using technology to help kids learn?

No one ever asks me to review anything, which is tragic considering how willing a consumer I am, also considering how eager I am as a PR person to be on the receiving end of a product pitch for once. So of course I said yes, also because everyone I interacted with at Knowledge Adventure was professional and friendly to a tee.

Back to my take on kids learning with technology: it’s awesome.  I’m a member of the first generation to grow up with “Sesame Street,” “School House Rock” and “Zoom,” all of which used technology to educate, early-70s style.  By which I mean TV.  And you better believe that TV-learnin’ stuck. It’s been nearly four decades and I can still recite the Preamble to the Constitution, tell a conjunction from a preposition, and sing the Boston zip code. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you were probably born after 1975. 

But don’t think we’re lax about computer use and gaming in the Smirnov household. DS, Wii and watching “Charlie the Unicorn” on YouTube for the 9000th time are strictly curtailed to weekends or an hour after school. That said, I always knew I’d be willing to bend the rules if there were an educational reason for my son to be on the computer.

Enter JumpStart.com. I had my doubts at first, just looking at the sweet, cartoony imagery on the home page. My kid is used to the 360-degree immersion of Wii Sports gaming and the non-stop kinetic blitz of Sonic and Mario, so I wondered how well JumpStart would hold his attention.  Well, that was before we installed the required 3-D plug-in, registered and started exploring the AdventureLand portion of the JumpStart online world.  The kid’s first comment?  

“This. Is. Awesome.”

In a nutshell, JumpStart combines traditional video game elements with learning challenges and age-appropriate, secure social interaction in a series of shimmering, immersive worlds geared to kids ages 3-10. The company says the educational curriculum is “based on state standards from the top, most influential states: CA, FL, TX, IL and NY” and that they “combined all the standards from these states to create our proprietary scope and sequence which spirals through skills based on grade level.” That’s fancy teacher talk for they take their curriculum development very seriously, which is good enough for me.

You should note there is a $7.99 monthly subscription fee (per family, not child), though you can try the game out for free for a 10-day trial period. (Not bad when you compare it to the one-time game rental fees Blockbuster’s charging these days.) Here are some highlights from my little gamer’s test drive:

  • One of the first things your kid will do is customize his or her avatar or “Jumpee.” I don’t know about yours, but my child spends hours hanging out in the Wii Plaza, messing with his own Mii and creating different ones for his friends. The JumpStart creators tap into that childish need to customize and control their game image out of the gate.
  • I ask my kid what he thinks of the look of the game. “I love it. Write that down.”
  • After swimming his Jumpee through the gorgeous underwater environment MarineLand, my son chooses his first game. He is initially non-plussed: “Dude. This is math.” But waiting at the end of the math challenge is part of a sand dollar. Earn enough sand dollars (or coins, depending on what Land you’re in) and you unlock awesome stuff like a shark tail for your Jumpee, or a cuddly friend at the Petz Shop. My son gets over himself and plunges in happily.
  • Later. “This is like Club Penguin, except with stuff for big kids.”
  • And still later. “They should call this 3-D World instead of JumpStart.”
  • The ultimate accolade: “I think the guy who made Star Wars made this.”

Game developer Chris Williams says the worlds are designed so kids can explore on, around, underneath and behind cool objects -- like waterfalls, for instance.

My kid’s been hanging at JumpStart.com consistently for over a month with no sign of waning interest. He’s even put the new JumpStart Adventure Island Wii game on his Christmas wish list. Can learning and computer fun co-exist? Apparently yes, even to the most jaded of 6 year-old gaming sensibilities.

Final verdict: thumbs-up.

Check out the JumpStart blog here, and visit the home page for a guided tour.

Love note to the FTC: I received no payment for reviewing this website, including neither sand dollars nor cuddly Petz. We were given access to the site for a limited time to try it out but ongoingly I would happily pay the monthly  fee. It’s good stuff and worth the sand dollars.

Images via Knowledge Adventure.

My Call with Uma Thurman

October 14, 2009 6 comments

Motherhood2I’ve mentioned before that I’m part of a group of NYC-area mom bloggers working with the team promoting Motherhood, a movie coming out in a week or so made by a mom, starring a mom, about a mom. No money exchanging hands (that’s for you, FTC), just access to the cast and director for interviews and some nice link love on the movie Facebook page.

So I’m waiting for the call to start this morning, making chit chat with the dozen or so bloggers on the line and enjoying the not-yet muted sounds of their home lives in the background. I hear cooing babies, barking dogs, toddlers clamoring for “Sesame Street.” My background noises, meanwhile, are those of the work-at-office mom: tooth-rattling jackhammers and sirens shrieking their way down Lexington Avenue.

Uma joins the call. Mute button on. Suddenly I’m having a moment. I AM ON THE PHONE WITH BEATRIX THE BRIDE. Holy Tarantino. The warrior mother, the assassin goddess, the woman who dispatches legions and murmurs, “Those of you lucky enough to still have your lives — take them with you. But leave the limbs you’ve lost. They belong to me now.”

*Swoon*

Ooops, I’m first up! I get to read my question myself. In my mind I’m saying, “Beatrix the Bride I love you and want to braid your hair and can I try on your yellow jumpsuit” but here’s what I actually say: “Uma! Hi!” She answers my question and the dozen that follow but Blessed Virgin Mary, this call is a hot mess. It’s all dropped connections, background noise, overlapping conversation…in other words, the absolute personification of motherhood itself. I don’t think a single one of us is sweating this fact because we’re used to chaos. It is our currency, whether we work for a paycheck or not. Moms all do a variation of the same juggling act, after all. Which sometimes sucks and sometimes is beautiful and joyful.

So here are some of my favorite bits from the interview:

Uma was asked where she feels the movie’s authenticity comes from. She said she loves that Eliza’s character is not there to cast the viewer’s attention on someone else – a man or a child. She is the heart of the movie, depicted honestly – with flaws and anger issues, but very much in love with her family.

She’s surprised when other mothers dismiss the topic of motherhood in film (as in “Why watch a movie about my own boring life?”) Uma wonders why we discredit ourselves so much that we’d think raising another human being isn’t worthy of pop culture attention.

My question was about a scene described by director Katherine Dieckmann as her favorite in the film. Eliza and her husband are sitting in a car. Emotional words are exchanged. I asked Uma to describe it and here’s what she said: 

Eliza is digging into the source of her unhappiness, the fact that she’s lost herself in the minutiae of domestic life. She’s worn down by the tiny, grinding repetitive acts that make up her day. She no longer recognizes herself.

I want to see this movie for that scene alone. I predict I’ll hear myself in Eliza’s words, see myself in her frustration. I wonder what will happen for her and if she’ll find peace with the choices she’s made. I wonder too about the women in my life who don’t have creative or professional outlets, who lose a bit of themselves every day. The moms who – like Eliza – pour all their talent and energy into their families at the expense of their own aspirations. They’re the ones who deserve happy endings.

Motherhood is in theaters October 23rd.

Image via.

Check out Eliza’s blog here.

Mom Blogging Goes Hollywood

September 17, 2009 4 comments


I’ve always liked Uma Thurman, but when she emerged as the central muse in the twisted world of Quentin Tarantino she stole my heart once and for all. Mrs. Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction? Swoon.

When I heard Uma was starring as a mom blogger in her next film, it was hard to shake the image of her as The Bride in the Kill Bill flicks — kick ass yellow jumpsuit, bloody sword, fiercely beautiful and totally lethal. Then I remembered that it was the ferocious drive to reclaim her lost daughter that drove her through the second film — so in addition to being a real-life mother, Uma knows how to play motherhood and then some.

Motherhood was written and directed by Katherine Dieckmann, who I got to  spend some time with this afternoon on a conference call with a handful of other NYC-area  bloggers. Couple of things you might want to know about Katherine and Motherhood:

The movie was made almost entirely by women. That rocks.

Katherine drew from her own life in creating it; in fact, the film was shot in the building where she lives. She said she awoke each morning to the sound of the crew setting up, got her kids fed and off to school, and went to work. Downstairs. Which also rocks.

Katherine’s kids loved the craft services. Anyone who’s been on a TV or film set knows what this is. It’s food, and lots of it. The kids called it “crafty” and apparently got obsessed with it because Katherine is not a “big snack giver.”

One of the reasons Katherine was inspired to make the movie is that she couldn’t find any authentic representations of motherhood on the big screen. She cites Baby Boom (Diane Keaton as J.C. Wiatt, amazing) as one of the last movies to treat motherhood as the complex juggling act it really is. (That was 22 years ago, by the way.)

I can’t wait to see this movie. I love Uma playing disheveled. She’s incredibly endearing, and with Minnie Driver as her BFF and Anthony Edwards as her hub, what’s not to love. I also love movies shot on location in this city. I can’t help but wonder if Motherhood won’t be just a little bit of a love letter to the West Village, since it’s where Katherine makes her home.

Finally, I love that blogging — mom blogging, specifically — is in the spotlight with nary a mention of FTC guidlines or brand shilling controversies. Maybe this film will put the focus back on what’s been true about mom bloggers from the beginning: they tell it like it is about motherhood. Authentically, unfiltered, with some of the most beautiful writing on the internet. They are raw, passionate, angry, joyful, supportive, frantic, serene, hilarious, loving. Some times all at once. I am not surprised — and eternally grateful — that it’s a woman bringing this glorious cacaphony to the silver screen.

Motherhood opens in select markets October 23rd. Get more info here.

[Disclosure: There are no material connections between the makers of Motherhood and me. All they did was invite me to participate in a conference call. I realize I’ve just set a dangerous precedent as a cheap date. What I really want but am too shy to request is to go on a playdate with Uma, Katherine and their kids. I might even remember to bring my kid. Katherine says it’s okay to drink wine during playdates, provided the children are not put in harm’s way. So clearly we were meant to be best friends.]