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Free Advice

National Student Leadership Conference Tomorrow, the National Student Leadership Conference will bus 16 high school students to Sterling Communications' headquarters. Visiting from around the country, they're interested in journalism and mass communications and will learn a bit about what we do as well as some skills they might need to get an internship or job in public relations.

We've been lucky to visit several clients recently to help them ramp up their social media efforts. The workshops have been well received and are producing some good results, which we'll be sharing with everyone soon, but with the students tomorrow. The professions of PR, marketing, advertising, and reporting are changing, and we're eager to discuss it.

However, in preparation, I kept coming up with random bits of advice that wouldn't neatly fit in the presentation. They weren't skills, exactly, but lessons I learned one way or another in school and as a reporter, ghostwriter, marketer, and account executive. Let me know what you think and whether you have something to add.

In no particular order, here's some advice I've heard, read or learned the hard way about school and work.

Expand your horizons.

  • Once a week, read a magazine outside your area of interest. Boring people have fewer friends and make less money.
  • Regardless of your major, take and ace classes in grammar, logic and public speaking. Your career will thank you for it later.
  • If Steve Jobs hadn't taken a calligraphy class at Reed College, you wouldn't have a choice of fonts on your computer.

Leave smart voicemails.

  • Keep messages under 45 seconds.
  • Give your number twice, slowly.
  • Practice out loud before calling.
  • Don't sound like a brochure, release, or telemarketer.

Write good well.

  • Buy "When Words Collide" and Strunk & White's "Elements of Style."
  • Use active verbs. Avoid adverbs. Murder your darlings. Be clear, concise and compelling.
  • Proofread. Read your work aloud. Edit. For important projects, ask someone to read your work aloud to you.
  • Break writer's block by writing a letter to someone about what you're writing about. Don't edit or stop until you're done.

Know your tech.

  • Unless you're editing video daily, buy a notebook.
  • Consider that a Mac can be a PC, but a PC can't be a Mac.
  • Back up your data securely and religiously. Keep backups separate from sources in case of disaster.
  • Pick unique, tough passwords for different sites. Change them at least twice a year.
  • Be as self-sufficient as practical with your computer and networks.

Learn SEO basics.

Ask experts questions.

  • "What's the best way to reach you with something important?" (Show respect for their time.)
  • "May I take you to lunch next month?" (Give them time … and a time frame.)
  • "Do you know anyone who needs ______?" (Ask for referrals and references.)
  • "How can I improve ______?" (If you're not learning you're falling behind.)
  • "Where did you learn about  ______?" (You'd be surprised how experts get to be experts.)

Be a reporter.

  • Even if you're in advertising, marketing or PR, be a reporter. Uncover the news and share it with others.
  • Find new angles. Fresh perspectives are always welcome when they're well-researched and well-written.
  • Cultivate your sources. You don't know everything. You don't even know what you don't know. "They" — your readers, friends, peers, experts in the field — might.
  • Advance the discourse. Leave the snark to those without anything to add.

Learn how to learn.

  • When I started college, we didn't have email and the Web didn't exist outside the lab. No one had a cell phone. I walked uphill to school in the snow barefoot and walked uphill back home over hot lava while hunting for dinner using only a club carved from a mastodon thighbone. Things have changed. Things always change. The tools you start college with won't be the tools you're using four years later. Embrace what works, refine your workflow, and focus on results.

Friends, family, fingers.

  • Who has your back? Who loves you most? What can your brain do with two hands? Not much more matters to your health, wealth, and happiness that I've learned to date. Let me know if I'm wrong.