A New Focus

Earlier this year, I began the process of narrowing the focus of Lisa Plotnick Editorial to a single industry – cruise travel. With the support and guidance of friends, family, and mentors (including the faculty of the Emerson College Department of Professional Studies and my new employer), the conversion is now complete.

Carnival Glory approaches Boston. (c) Lisa Plotnick and NauticalNotebook.com

Carnival Glory approaches Boston. (c) Lisa Plotnick and NauticalNotebook.com

Bear with me while I do some shameless self-promotion.

What sets me apart?

  • Objectivity. I am not affiliated with any cruise lines, travel agencies, or other travel providers.
  • Cruise experience. My history as a cruise passenger includes more than 30 cruises to three continents in the past 24 years, enabling me to make observations through the eyes of a cruise traveler.
  • Travel experience. So far, I have visited 32 U.S. states, 7 Canadian provinces and one Canadian territory, 32 countries, and 4 continents. So far…
  • Editorial experience. The skills I use in my career as a writer in the financial services industry — research, copyediting, developmental editing, and news reporting — have proven to be transferable to the travel industry.
  • Longevity. I began publishing cruise reviews and port reviews in 1998.
  • Digital communication. Through my tenure at Sealetter.com (2000-2005), I was among the early columnists of a Web-only magazine.

While I have not abandoned the retirement income industry – as if that could ever happen – I look forward to taking the business in a new direction. I hope you will join me on the journey.

When the Copyeditor is Wrong: My Take on “Word Crimes”

Unless you were living under a rock (figuratively, not literally), chances are you saw the new music video “Word Crimes,” a parody by “Weird Al” Yankovic in which he laments the decline of proper grammar in today’s society. The video, set to the melody of Robin Thicke’s hit song “Blurred Lines,” illustrates several pet peeves of grammarians – such as less vs. fewer, possessives vs. contractions, and the misunderstood “I could care less.”

I watched “Word Crimes” with great joy. And, about one minute into the video, I found something questionable. As nearly every copyeditor knows, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary is in its eleventh edition. So, why did the video show a mock-up of the Merriam-Webster logo that noted a twenty-seventh edition? Was it creative license, I pondered?

Several hours after I posted my observation on my Facebook page, I learned from a reader – who was kind enough to contact me privately (thank you!) – that it was not an error. It turns out that Mr. Yankovic places the number 27 in his videos as an inside joke – a way to say hello to his fans.

In other words, the copyeditor was wrong.

Copyeditors are not perfect. As we check for proper syntax, confirm that the punctuation conveys the intended meaning, and verify facts, it is inevitable that we will miss something. And, we almost always have questions for the author if we believe something needs clarification.

So, we are back to the quandary of the dictionary’s edition number in the video. This is a perfect example of the importance of querying. In this case, as my fact-checking of dictionary editions did not provide an answer, I would add a comment to the draft stating, “Please confirm that this should be twenty-seventh edition.”

The example also illustrates the value of an editor who knows your field – and knows it well. Had I known of the connection, the query may have read, “Just checking that the 27 is Al’s calling card.” As this involves less time for the copyeditor, it would also reduce costs incurred by the writer or publisher (assuming an hourly rate of pay).

Finally, to those wondering, the use of quotation marks in the name “Weird Al” Yankovic does not contradict his disdain for using the punctuation for emphasis. They are perfectly acceptable when used as part of a nickname. How do I know this? I know where to look for the answer.

Year in review: Business books of 2013

I love to read, although I don’t get to enjoy this hobby as much as I’d like. So far in 2013, I’ve read 30 books, including 10 that were released in 2013. Below, I summarize the subset in the business or professional development genres. Books are listed alphabetically by author. The rating scale runs from one star (don’t bother) to five stars (a must-read).

1. Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger, Simon & Schuster.  *****

In this quick and engaging read, author Jonah Berger opines on the subject of viral communications in a way that spans multiple industries, thereby making the material appreciable to an audience beyond the usual business community.  This approach, along with clear writing, made this my favorite business book of the year.

2. David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell, Little, Brown and Company. ***

My three-star assessment of this book has nothing to do with the writing itself, which is superb; rather, I did not find the examples compelling enough to make the case. Yet, the theories presented by Malcom Gladwell are interesting and thought-provoking, as always, and are definitely worth the read for renewed perspective.

3. What You’re Really Meant to Do, Robert Steven Kaplan, Harvard Business School Publishing.  **

If you’re looking for a quick read on how to maximize your potential at work, this book may be for you. The author provides an introspective road map for recognizing, understanding, and using your traits and values to reach your definition of success. However, there is very little discussion on how to handle the unavoidable bumps in the road, and the book suffers for its lack of depth in this area.

4. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg, Knopf.  ***

Although this was a decent book, it didn’t resonate with me. Much of the advice is not new — I have “leaned in” for years and have had a successful career because of it. And, the adage “it’s not what you know but who you know” remains an underlying theme of the book. Even so, it’s a well-researched analysis of the role of gender in the workplace.

5. The First 90 Days (Updated and Expanded): Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, Michael D. Watkins, Harvard Business Review Press.  ****

This 2013 re-release is a decent read, particularly the early sections on onboarding. As a freelancer, I am often in the onboarding stage, so this book has been helpful in managing those expectations. An added bonus, however, was the theme of continual onboarding; that is, adapting to changes in the workplace.. For that reason, this is a book I will consult often. (For those so inclined, a mobile app is available for additional charge; I have not downloaded it.)

6. Financial Blogging; How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients, Susan B. Weiner, CFA, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.  *****

This was the book that was most helpful to me as a research writer-turned blogger. Soon after following Ms. Weiner’s advice, traffic to my blog increased considerably, and my level of apprehension decreased.  Today’s entry, in fact, was developed with the aid of the worksheets and checklists provided in the book.

What were some of your favorite business books of 2013? And, what is on your wish list for 2014?

5 ways retirement planning is like an NBA game

photo(6)Teamwork, timing, and execution are all part of retirement planning. And, as I observed last night, they are also important elements of a National Basketball Association (NBA) game.

Yes, it’s time for another of my analogies. This time, I was inspired by a game between the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic, which the Celtics won by a score of 120-105.

The common features I noted were as follows.

  1.  Players are on both offense and defense. Granted, last night’s final score shows that both teams were somewhat short on defense. Still, staying one step ahead of potential obstacles is an important strategy. In retirement planning, this may be in the form of a contingency fund or low-risk investments. Handling the defense well may enable one to take more risks on the offense.
  2. Keep your eye on the clock. Although real-life retirement planning does not come in 24-second spurts, the execution of a plan should be undertaken as soon as possible. Use this time wisely; every moment counts. And, keep in mind that the window of opportunity may be cut short by an unplanned event.
  3. Rebound, rebound, rebound. If you make a mistake, there’s a chance to catch it immediately and try again. Don’t let one missed opportunity derail your run toward retirement.
  4. Understand the risk-reward trade-off. A three-pointer can be exciting; yet, just as in real life, rewards are not as easy as they look. Sometimes, it’s worth it to take a little longer to reach a more likely, but smaller, result. Sometimes, it’s not. That’s why investors should consult their advisors, as the latter have the skills to handle a variety of situations that may arise.
  5. Saving the most important for last, teamwork leads to strong results. In last night’s game, four of the five Boston starters scored at least 16 points each, and the team combined for 28 assists. Yet, not all of the teamwork is on the court. Even before the game, plans are developed, analyzed, and explained by expert advisors. Good coaching—or advising—continues throughout the length of the game, and provides expert ways to refocus as needed.

This is just a short list of comparisons I jotted down last evening. Please feel free to add to this list by using the comment box. (And, for those wondering, the photo was taken from the first row of section 303 in Boston’s TD Garden.)

Reasons to look beyond your industry when marketing your business

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen evaluating marketing strategy and tactics, executives need to emerge from their silos and seek out and draw analogies from other industries. My latest example of this inter-industry inspirational technique was a set of case studies in my marketing class, where students presented service-related issues encountered by a company or industry. By happenstance, both presentations made last week focused on firms that, following high-profile negative incidents, launched marketing campaigns that sought to bring consumers back to basics. According to the presenters, Carnival Cruise Lines refocused on onboard fun while JetBlue emphasized customer service.

Immediately, I saw applicability to the retirement income industry, particularly the variable annuity industry.

In early 2010, while working at Cerulli Associates, I authored a research report called Evaluating Your Variable Annuity Product Line. Among the findings were that, in the wake of the financial crisis, the industry had entered a period of “stabilization and rationalization” and a return to basics would emerge gradually in the years ahead. These findings met with some controversy, as the prevailing belief was that, despite data to the contrary, the presence of comprehensive guaranteed lifetime withdrawal benefits (GLWBs) increased sales. Yet, let’s fast-forward three-and-a-half years: many insurance companies reduced benefit levels or increased the costs, some discontinued the GLWB, and some firms exited the business altogether.

That said, the annuity industry—primarily the fixed annuity industry, however—has started to return to basics with the introduction of the deferred income annuity (DIA), a lifetime annuity variation that provides an income stream that commences a couple of decades from the time of purchase. Beacon Research estimates that sales of fixed annuity market DIAs have increased during each of the past six quarters, culminating in a 40% increase during second quarter 2013. At the same time, however, several insurers continue to tweak VAs by offering new products in which both parties share any losses the policies might incur. While this makes the VA more palatable (to both consumers and insurers), it is also a complex notion, yet one can argue that it is a way to preserve the traditional function of the GLWB.

While it is too soon to measure the impact of Carnival’s September 2013 campaign, my classmate related that JetBlue had success with its You Above All™ campaign in 2010. Nostalgia? Perhaps. Yet it also showed how companies can, or can hope, to rebound from a disruptive event by returning to their roots.

Intimidated by blogging? This book can help.

Just as there are different kinds of music, there are different kinds of writing. That is what I told myself when I, a seasoned writer of 100-page research reports in the financial services industry, felt intimidated when attempting to blog. How could I convey my thoughts in fewer than 300 words and keep readers informed and engaged at the same time?

Thankfully, Susan Weiner came to the rescue with Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients (Susan B. Weiner, CFA ~ Published 2013 by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform). The techniques presented in this book can pertain to many kinds of writing, yet were key in helping me focus on this new world of blogging. Especially useful were the worksheets on mind-mapping, blog post preparation, topic brainstorming (I no longer struggle with titles), and the blog post review checklist. Although I consider myself adept in using social media, the tips in Chapter 9, Promoting Your Blog, gave me greater — and actionable — insights to improve my online presence.

I recommend Ms. Weiner’s book very highly to all who want to — or who need to — maximize their blogging potential. Writers of all levels, from novice to long-timer, will find this a most useful reference.

Back to school: Books that revitalized my marketing career

Among my cherished hobbies is reading. My bookshelves are filled with volumes representing various genres, including the classics (Jane Austen is my favorite), ocean liner history, travel, business, and professional development. Additionally, I have a collection of contemporary literature on my e-reader.

I enjoy, as well, sharing my thoughts on the books I’ve read. I am a regular contributor to Goodreads, from where I also find recommendations for other books I might enjoy. (And, those are almost always spot-on.) Since returning to school to obtain my professional certificates in copyediting and marketing and branding, I’ve read some very helpful (and, at times, fun) books that are pertinent to my career.  I share my reviews, originally published on Goodreads, with the hope that others may find them useful.


Mobile Marketing: An Hour a Day (Rachel Pasqua, Noah Elkin ~ Published December 26, 2012 by John Wiley & Sons)

I learned a great deal about mobile marketing from this book, some of which I am already putting into practice. Although this text was assigned reading for a college course I took over the summer, I would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about this essential, emerging business and how to develop actionable plans for marketing through mobile media.


eMarketing: The Essential Guide to Digital Marketing (Rob Stokes ~ Published 2011 by Quirk eMarketing (Pty) Ltd.)

This book was assigned reading for a university-level continuing education course in Internet marketing. The price could not be beaten; it was a free download from the publisher. The material was organized well and included useful charts for planning and measuring marketing goals. My main issue with the book, however, was that it could get confusing for the American learner as the book was published in a different continent. Many of the Web sites mentioned were not familiar to me and, as a trained grammarian, I found myself distracted by a form of written English with which I was unfamiliar. I’d consider this book a decent resource (especially that it is available at no cost), but not the only resource for those who wish to learn about eMarketing.


Integrated Advertising, Promotion and Marketing Communication (Kenneth Clow, Donald Baack ~ Published December 27th 2010 by Prentice Hall)

Integrated Advertising, Promotion and Marketing Communications was assigned reading for a recent class in Integrating the Marketing Message — and was an excellent choice by the instructor. The chapters were organized in a way that made sense, particularly for a student like myself who had been away from the classroom for many years. I found the lead-in vignettes, integrated campaigns in action features, and examples of advertisements very helpful in expanding my understanding of the material. The only negative was its price — a used copy was going for roughly $140 at the time of my purchase. Still, in retrospect, it was a decent price for such an informative text that I know will serve well as a reference book for years to come


Special mention: Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (Lynne Truss ~ Published April 2006 by The Penguin Group (first published 2003))

I don’t have to admit to being a stickler. Everyone who knows me is already aware of my grammarian tendencies. I read Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation on and off during a period three months, each time with a grin as I realized that I was not alone in my love of punctuation. And, that’s exactly what this book is about — the evolution of punctuation. Author Lynne Truss takes us on a journey from the early printed form of language to today’s emoticons while combining historical references with a bit of humor. Note that this is not a book about grammar; nor is it a definitive guide on how to use punctuation (as conventions vary between countries). Yet, for those of us who cringe at the misuse of the apostrophe or appreciate how a comma can change the meaning of a sentence, this is a wonderful read that will keep you entertained.

Have you read any good business books lately? Please share in the comments section, below.

Cruise alliance is a model for the retirement industry

A few weeks ago, I deviated from my retirement research to focus on another area of interest – the cruise industry. The Cruise Canada New England Alliance held its 2013 Symposium in my city and I was privileged to attend this three-day conference that featured discussions with executives from cruise lines, port authorities, and other industry stakeholders.

As I listened to the presentations, I could not help but think of the applicability to the retirement industry. This was a discouraging exercise.

Let’s backtrack. The Cruise Canada New England Alliance consists of port authorities of five separate regions—New York City, Boston, Maine, Atlantic Canada, and the Saint Lawrence. Between them, they represent nearly 40 ports of call in 3 U.S. states and 5 Canadian provinces. The Alliance was established in 1988.

All of the members share the goal of maximizing passenger traffic to their ports. After all, an influx of tourists can have notable financial benefits for a locale. For example, the Historic Charlottetown Seaport in Prince Edward Island estimates that cruise ship calls during 2012 generated $13.4 million for the province. Therefore, it might be reasonable to draw the conclusion that these port authorities are competing for passengers.

Yet, that is not the case. Before you can get cruise ships to commit to regular visits to your port, you must first convince the cruise lines that the region itself is worth considering. And, that is the goal of the Cruise Canada New England Alliance.

And, that also exemplifies a key difference between the two industries I follow. In the retirement industry, financial services companies have a number of products worthy of consideration for a retirement portfolio, and many can fit together as neatly as a cruising itinerary. However, there is a strong tendency to point out the disadvantages of competitors’ offerings rather than join forces to explain how to address the retirement issue in the first place.

Not every product is right for every investor who is saving for retirement. And, any product recommendation should not be considered by itself—that is, it needs to be considered for its role in the overall journey. In that area, the retirement industry has a lot to learn. In the meantime, I am continuing to weigh my options for my next Canada New England cruise.


Want guaranteed income for life? Then opt in…again.

An article in today’s issue of InvestmentNews describes how one insurer’s plan to save a retirement income benefit could ultimately result in the loss of the benefit for some customers.

The Hartford Life and Annuity Company (The Hartford) will, as of October 4, require long-time variable annuity (VA) policyholders who elected the Lifetime Income Builder guaranteed lifetime withdrawal benefit (GLWB) to reallocate their underlying fund investments according to a prescribed formula. Those who do not will forfeit future guaranteed lifetime benefits.

This is a frightening prospect for a number of reasons.

The GLWB has been a key selling point for the annuity industry since the time of its introduction in the mid-2000s. According to the LIMRA report VA GLB Election Rates (2012, 4th Quarter), the GLWB election rate was 62% in fourth quarter 2012, easily eclipsing the 18% election rate of the second-most popular guaranteed living benefit.

Additionally, a large part of the growth of the GLWB in the industry involved so-called product development wars, in which insurers continuously one-upped each other to offer the most generous benefits to investors. Insurers even one-upped themselves to retain market share. And, when the economy faltered and hedging became extremely difficult, a reduction of benefits by one company opened the floodgates for the rest to follow.

Finally, advisors must now contact affected clients, some of whom were not theirs to begin with due to the passage of time and M&A activity in the years since the policies were sold. Inevitably, some will be unable to locate.

In all fairness, insurers have little choice when managing the risk inherent in these benefits. The implementation of investment option guidelines in concert with living benefit selection has been commonplace for years—whether in the form of asset allocation models or formulas that place limits on the percentage of funds allocated to specific asset classes.

Enacting such changes years after policy issue is permissible as the standard language in the contract between the insurer and policyholder included clauses that covered the insurer for a variety of contingencies. Even so, it was believed by many in the industry at the time that it would be unlikely for these to go into effect, other than fee increases.

Yet, this is my concern—given the copycatting that goes on in the VA industry, will it be long until other insurers terminate benefits unless customers take specific actions to keep them active? Discuss below.

Opening day

The arrival of spring in Boston is not complete until Opening Day. By this, I refer not to Fenway Park (for America’s pastime), but to Cruiseport Boston (for my pastime). Tomorrow marks the beginning of the 2013 cruise season in Boston, as Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Dawn departs on the first of her weekly, seasonal cruises to Bermuda. The attached photo of Norwegian Dawn was taken on Opening Day 2012, and I hope to get to the port tomorrow to capture a new photograph. Welcome home, Norwegian Dawn. And welcome, spring!

Norwegian Dawn, Opening Day 2012 (c) 2010-2013 NauticalNotebook.com

Norwegian Dawn, Opening Day 2012
(c) 2010-2013 NauticalNotebook.com