When’s retirement? Diary of a jaded teacher…

Man, oh man… God, give me strength, pleeeease!!! (Just a thought, your bearded Holiness, in case you just happen to have some strength lying around somewhere…)

Walked into my biology class today and asked the students to hand in their assignment on cells, which they’ve had, oh, around 417 days to do.

I got the usual excuses:

‘My printer wouldn’t work.’

‘My Dad’s work printer wouldn’t work and neither would my Mum’s, my best friend’s, or any of the 27 printers at school.’

‘I was abducted by an alien called Krumpus who whisked me off on a journey to the Land of no Printers.’

I mean… really? Is it so hard to organise access to a freaking printer that works????


Letters to the Editor

I’ll have to admit, I’m a bit of a sucker for Letters to the Editor. I find it’s a great way to get those creative juices flowing, and always a buzz when your stuff gets published. Here are some of my contributions to the Herald Sun (Melbourne):

On the Rio Olympics logo – June 08, 2016
Is it just me, or does the Rio Olympics logo look like a giant baby dummy?

On the Queen – April 02, 2016:
When the Queen turns 100, will she get a letter from herself?

On Madonna’s long concert delays at her recent Australian concerts – March 22, 2016:
So Madonna’s 21/2-hour concert delay is due to “personal rituals” she conducts before the show. Might try that one on my boss next time I’m late for work.

On greyhound racing’s disgusting ‘live baiting’ scandal – February 18, 2015:
Let’s hope Sandown Park is deserted this Saturday night.

On the Essendon Football Club’s supplements saga (yes, I’m a Carlton supporter but please don’t hold that against me) – August 26, 2013:
After what the AFL did to Carlton over its salary cap breaches, Essendon should lose five years’ worth of draft picks.

On Wendy Hargreave’s review of one of the Harry Potter movies – July 26, 2009:
I hate to break it to you Wendy, but that innocent Enid Blyton world you dream about, where obviously there are no such things as teenage hormones, exists only in your head.
As for describing Ron’s broomstick as a phallic symbol, I can honestly say that did not occur to me once while watching the movie.

Feeding the Internet spiders: the secret of SEO

These days, just about every business out there has a website; it’s today’s must-have for companies wanting as big a slice of market pie as they can get.

But there’s not much point having a great-looking site that extols the many virtues of your product or service if it’s languishing somewhere on page 25 of a Google search. Bottom line is, nobody’s going to see it.

This is where the ‘art’ of search engine optimization comes in. Some of us have heard of it; some may even have a good idea of what it’s all about, but to many, it’s one of the great mysteries of the Internet.

In a nutshell, SEO is about making your website more visible to search engine ‘spiders’, software programs that are constantly crawling the net locating and indexing web pages.

Spiders tend to have a voracious appetite – but not for everything. They gobble up useful, user-friendly content but will spit out spam; they love the use of appropriate ‘keywords’, but not too many (same goes for links), and they really hate it when you ‘cloak’, that is, when you present different content to the search engines than you do to users, considered a violation against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

So what is it that gets your website a high Google ranking? One of the most important things is good use of keywords, words – or phrases – in your content that enable people to find you via an Internet search. If you’ve chosen wisely, your site will quite likely appear on page one or two of the SERP (Search Engine Results Page). But how do you know which words to choose?

Well, you really need to put yourself in the shoes of your potential customers and ask what words you would type in if you were searching for your particular product or service. Be aware that if you use a keyword phrase like personal trainer, you’ll be competing with literally thousands of other businesses. Usually it’s best to be more specific, for example, personal trainer Ivanhoe area or children’s personal trainer in Preston. These sorts of ‘long-tail’ searches – where users type in more specific keywords – are now said to make up 70% of all Internet searches and the best thing is, these users are far more likely to be buying, rather than browsing.

The number of times you use a certain keyword is also important. Generally speaking, the more often it appears on your page the more visible it becomes, but overuse can lead to search engines blacklisting your site as spam, potentially sending your ranking into oblivion. There’s no magic number; depending on what you read you can use a keyword anywhere between three and ten times on a page. Personally, I wouldn’t go any higher than around four or five, including once in the page heading and two or three in the body text. Keywords can also be placed in title tags, URLs and in the meta description, which is the snippet of information found on a SERP that summarizes a page’s content.

But perhaps the most important thing to consider when it comes to your business website is the quality of the content. Like a high school teacher, search engines pick up on bad grammar and punctuation – albeit indirectly – and they don’t like it. I say ‘indirectly’ because their main method involves analysing the number of links to your page from other sites, and you’re not likely to have that many if users are turned off by your bad spelling.

While we’re on the subject of links, let me say that their value cannot be underestimated; they are still one of the main methods search engines use to determine the value of a web page. It’s definitely in your interest to try and garner as many of them as possible, and the best way to do this is to create content that is engaging, factual, regularly updated and that encourages sharing. The absolute worst thing you can do is to try and fool the search engines by ‘buying’ links. This is because companies that sell links tend to be disreputable and spammy – a bit like getting a letter of recommendation from a well-known drug dealer – and Google will soon drop you like a too-hot scone.

Content, content, content; this is what matters when it comes to maximising traffic to your business website. Remember, Google (and other search engines) can’t actually ‘see’ images and graphics, so while yours might be the best-looking site going around, it could still end up being ignored by those pesky little Internet spiders.

Making sure that your site content is sharp, informative, accurate and search-engine friendly takes a lot of time and effort, but once you see your precious baby shooting up through those rankings you’ll realise it’s well worth the investment.

I rate (or ‘irate’) past Olympic slogans

Let’s be honest: many Olympic slogans that have been used in the past have been generic at best, and boring or just downright weird at worst. Here are some of the ones I think stand out – although not necessarily for the right reasons…

The Good:

Summer 2004, Athens
Welcome Home
This one is obviously a reference to the History of the games, which of course began in Greece. Carries great sentiment and works well.

Summer 1992, Barcelona
Friends Forever
Short, simple and meaningful; a great example of ‘less is more’.

Summer 2008, Beijing
One World, One Dream
Perhaps a bit predictable, but quite nice in that ‘let’s all stand united and forget the fact that the world is a mess’ way.

The Slightly Weird

Winter 2006, Torino
Passion Lives Here
Awkward sounding sentence; perhaps doesn’t translate well from Italian.

Winter 1998, Nagano
From around the world to flower as one
What the…?

Summer 1988, Seoul
Harmony and Progress
Sounds like a high school motto – or part of a political campaign.

The Yawn-Inducing

Winter 1988, Calgary
Sharing the Passion
The slogan for this year’s Rio Olympic Games is Live Your Passion. What is it with the word ‘passion’?

Summer 1984, Los Angeles
Dare to Dream
Hmm, haven’t heard that one before…

Summer 2000, Sydney
Share the Spirit
Really did want to like this one, but…

Nick Kyrgios: the Rio dilemma

At the risk of being a bit controversial (not my usual style), I don’t think Nick Kyrgios should represent Australia at this year’s Rio Olympics.

Okay, I’ve said it, and if that somehow makes me ‘un-Australian’ (never liked that word), so be it.

In fact, even if Nick were our absolute best chance of a gold medal (which he isn’t), I’d be against it. Okay, so we end up with 439 gold medals instead of 440… no big deal.

What we could end up with if he does go is a reputation for pandering to spoilt brats – if we haven’t already developed exactly that. Kyrgios, after all, earned ‘the most hated man in tennis’ tag from overseas media last year after his infamous ‘Kokkinakos banged your girlfriend’ comment during a match in Montreal. What’s worse is that since then he’s done nothing to try and repair the damage to his reputation, being regularly called out for audible obscenities, racquet abuse and even bullying ball kids.

The guy’s a ticking time bomb and somehow, a ‘Kyrgios event’ at the Olympics seems a lot worse than one at Wimbledon or the Australian Open. There are a lot more people watching for a start, and if he did happen to win a medal, how would the Brazilian crowd react? Could Nick become the first Aussie Olympic athlete to receive boos and jeers while standing on the dais?

Should we risk it?

The Science Behind Weight Control

If you’ve ever wondered why it seems so impossible to lose weight and keep it off, science just might have the answer.

Many health professionals believe that our weight is genetically pre-determined, that is, all of us have a certain weight range, known as our ‘set point’, that our bodies actually fight to maintain.

We’ve all been there. We start a strict diet and – yay! – the kilos start coming off and we’re re-acquainting ourselves with our toes…

But then, the inevitable happens. It comes in the form of a hunger so intense it’s almost cruel – and eventually we give in to it and the kilos return.

Why does this happen? The answer goes back a long, long way to the time of our ancestors, who were nomads and often found food difficult to come by. When the body is deprived of nutrients, it goes into a type of ‘starvation mode’, slowing down metabolism to conserve energy and creating that insane hunger that just won’t go away. It’s the body’s way of protecting us.

Does that mean that all diets are futile, and that some of us are destined to remain a size 22 for all of eternity?

Not necessarily. It’s possible that many of us today are actually sitting above our body’s own set point – due to things like having a sedentary lifestyle and developing bad eating habits. It would seem that (unfortunately) the body isn’t programmed to fight against a heightened set point; just a lowered one. During the course of human evolution, it’s obviously become more important to avoid death by starvation than to avoid obesity.

The good news is that if you are sitting above your natural set point, you just need to re-discover it. The even better news is that your body won’t fight you on that; in fact, it’ll probably thank you for it.

So how do you go about re-discovering your set point? First of all, let me make it clear that fad diets are definitely not the way as these will just make you feel hungry and miserable all the time. It’s much better to begin a life-long plan that includes eating healthy foods, engaging in regular, moderate exercise and most importantly, listening and responding to your body’s hunger cues. This simply means eating when you’re hungry, stopping when you’re full and not overdoing the between-meal snacks. Keep this up and eventually, your weight will settle at the point that is normal for you.

But, I hear you ask, what if I reach my set point and I’m still not happy? What if I want to be a size 8 instead of a size 14? Well, there is evidence to suggest that doing lots of exercise can help reduce your natural set point so you could try that. However, in the end it really comes down to acceptance, and just trying to be happy with what nature has prescribed for you. After all, people come in all shapes and sizes and every one of them is normal and healthy.

So maybe it’s time to lose those bathroom scales, stop dieting and let Mother Nature win the battle of the bulge. Eventually, she will anyway.

Win a copy of my book, ‘An Italian Connection’!

In 2010 I started writing my book, An Italian Connection, which celebrates the lives and achievements of 21 notable ‘Italian Australians’ in a series of biographical articles.

When people think about famous Australians of Italian descent, they tend to picture such luminaries as singers Tina Arena and Natalie Imbruglia, actors Anthony LaPaglia and Vince Colosimo, or sports stars like rugby legend David Campese and surfer Mark Occhilupo.

I wanted to delve a bit deeper and explore other areas where Italian migrants – and their descendants – have contributed to our great country: in science, for example, or literature, business, design, law, you name it…

The result was that An Italian Connection, apart from including the aforementioned singers, actors and sports stars, also contains chapters on lesser known lights such as engineer Carlo Catani, businessmen Frank Costa and Luigi Grollo, and surgeon/medical historian Dr Ivo Vellar… people that don’t exactly come to mind in a discussion on ‘famous’ Italian Australians, but whose contributions are just as remarkable.

In celebration of all things Italian-Australian, let us know of someone who you think deserves a mention, and share their story with us!

Best entry will receive a copy of An Italian Connection!


The Power of the Word

Why professional copywriters can generate big bucks for small business.

Back in 1936, American Elmer Wheeler gave us the famous slogan, Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle. Described as one of the best-known salesmen of his time, his memorable quote still stands today as perhaps the most powerful piece of sales advice ever.

Salesman? Yes, that’s right, because advertising copywriters – those clever people who come up with the jingles, slogans and taglines that bombard us daily from every direction – are using the power of words to sell a product or service. They are neither journalists nor creative writers (even though they possess many of the same skills required by these professionals), but primarily business people who are aiming – on behalf of their clients – to grab the biggest slice of market pie as they possibly can.

Examples of just how powerful the right words can be are well documented. During the 1930s, oil giant Texaco paid Wheeler $5000 – a fortune in those days – for coming up with the following nine words: Is your oil at the right level today, sir? This was to replace the standard Check your oil today? It’s a seemingly subtle difference, but one that ended up increasing sales by 250,000 in just one week.

Another Wheeler success story came about when Barbasol, a company that makes shaving cream, hired him to come up with a slogan. Wheeler changed the words How would you like to save six minutes shaving? to How would you like to slash your shaving time in half? As a result, sales increased by a staggering 300%.

A more recent example, and one we’re all familiar with, is the famous Nike Just Do It campaign. These three little words increased the company’s sales from a mere $800 million to $9.2 BILLION in just 10 years!

While copywriters can be considered business people, the fact is that ‘copywriting’ and ‘business writing’ are two separate entities. Good copywriters for example, invariably make good business writers, but the reverse is not always true. The reason for this is that while business writers need to be logical, clear and well organised in the way they convey information, copywriters need those same skills plus the ability to write in an interesting and engaging manner. In discussing the benefits of a new walking shoe, a business writer might say: Our anatomical cushioned footbed and shock absorbing system make our shoes more comfortable to walk in. A copywriter on the other hand might put it this way: Our exciting new shoe technology will have you walking on air. One statement is designed to inform, the other to entice.

Copywriting is a rapidly growing occupation in Australia, especially since the growth of the Internet and the fact that these days, it’s become mandatory for any successful company to have a website. Yet it’s also been described as the ‘secret occupation’, with many small and medium-sized businesses – that could well stand to benefit the most – not even aware that copywriters exist, or where to find them. Instead, they tend to use their own staff to write copy, yet these are often people who have neither the skills nor the experience to really understand what informs and what entices.

The benefits for businesses using a professional copywriter can be huge. Not only does it save time, it can lead to greatly improved profit margins if the writer has done his or her job properly. Also, a local or freelance copywriter won’t charge the exorbitant fees that the big advertising agencies do, and yet understands just as clearly that effective copy needs to target a business’s clients, rather than the business itself.

In today’s tough economic climate, Elmer Wheeler’s famous words have probably never rung more true. It’s just that there are still a lot of business owners out there who are simply not recognizing that crucial difference between the ‘steak’ and the ‘sizzle’…