Panama Banal

We just got back from a terrific family vacation in Panama. Beautiful country, nice people and only a few encounters with terrifyingly large and/or life-threatening insects.

Looking back, the trip more or less broke into two parts:

One part was the time we stayed in “regular” hotels. Places with a front desk, a nice lobby, hot showers and a staff that spoke passable (or better) English.

The other part was the time we stayed in less fancy, local spots. One was a bed and breakfast in a small town; the other, an Indian village (you haven’t lived until you’ve played barefoot basketball on a dirt court with a bunch of guys wearing nothing but loincloths).

I have to confess that going in, it was the regular hotels that I was most looking forward to.

Not to say that I’m not as rugged and outdoorsy as the next guy (assuming that the next guy is also a bald, middle-aged, keyboard-pounding Jew). It’s just that I kind of had my sights set on a week of sitting by the pool, drinking fruity drinks and reading some books.

Unfortunately, my wife Linda wasn’t going for much of that. She wanted to “see the country,” “experience the culture,” “speak some Spanish,” “get to know the Panamanians.” You know, interact. And so we split the difference, spending time in each of these two very different environments.

Now that it’s over, I can tell you without hesitation that all of us – myself included – much preferred the time we spent at the local spots. There was nothing wrong with the fancy hotels, they just weren’t quite real.

So while the food, the staff and the decor were all indeed Panamanian-ish, the experience itself was so sanitized – and Americanized – that it felt more like a simulation. It was like visiting the “Panamanian Exhibit” at Disney World… technically accurate perhaps, but 10,000 feet off the ground. And, always with the knowledge that whenever you felt like it, you could just walk back into your air-conditioned room and switch on ESPN.

The local spots, on the other hand, gave us authentic experiences…

…Walking 30 minutes in 90 degree heat and 90 percent humidity, in search of a bike rental shop that someone said was “just up the road.”

…Using my 16-year-old son Evan’s command of Spanish to negotiate cab fees and ask detailed questions regarding restaurant menu offerings.

…Sleeping under a mosquito net on the floor of an elevated, open-air hut (did I mention the colossal insects?).

You get the picture. Real experiences, all genuinely Panamanian.

And while we didn’t necessarily enjoy every moment, I know one thing for sure: These were the best parts of our vacation and the only parts that any of us will ever remember (even my 10-year-old has stopped being impressed by hotel mini-bars).

But that’s not all. As I realized one afternoon while trying not to step on any venomous snakes, the connection between “Real” and “Memorable” is as true for business communications as it is for vacations.

Here’s what I mean. I receive all kinds of E-Newsletters that are grammatically correct, professionally designed and well written. And yet more often than not, they are snoozefests. Unoriginal, uninteresting, and devoid of any human touch. They’re Disney World simulations of real people having real thoughts.

That’s a big marketing problem. Because if you want people to pay attention to you, follow you, remember you and tell others about you, you need to stop looking like every other “hotel” on the planet. You need to lead your readers out into the street – where real life happens – and show them what you’re all about.

So try this the next time you sit down to write your E-Newsletter: Loosen up. Stop selling. Tell real stories from your own experience. Use real names and real photos of real people you really know. Stop polishing everything to the point where you’ve taken away all the heat and the dirt and the insects.

Does this mean that every reader will instantly love you? No. In fact some of them are going to run away as you come out from behind the professional mask. But, the ones who remain will know a lot more about you and, as a result, be a lot more inclined to hire you. Better stock up on bug spray.

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