About the Episode
- Sam’s background and journey in corporate advertising, copywriting and content creation, and why he loves chasing eyeballs
- Sam's journey as a speech and debate coach, and why speech and debate is a great way to develop one's own voice and values
- What Sam means by authentic storytelling with purpose
Detours and Tangents
- The evolving social media landscape and why it makes sense to think of social media platforms like cities
- The time Sam worked on a promotional campaign for comedian Mike Birbiglia
- What it means to have legitimate attention, and the role of competition and coaching in development and growth
Recorded 14 December 2022
Sam's squiggly career
- Sam has a mischievous personality and since a young age he has been driven by a desire to get a rise out of people and make them laugh.
- "I was raised in a way where I was going to go to college for something that could get me a job. So I was trying to find a job in which I knew I could be creative. I watched Mad Men and I saw them brainstorming in fun creative ways and then making cool things, and I liked the culture. Not the drinking part and whatnot, it was the sitting in a room being silly part of the show. So I wanted to do that, and advertising was that."
- After college. he had two "wonderfully formative" experiences. He started his career as an intern at a Broadway marketing startup, RPM, where he was able to turn his passion for theatre into a full-time job. However, he felt that he was missing the deep strategy aspect that he desired and so he went on to work at a brand consultancy and creative agency, Co Collective.
- At Co Collective, Sam was able to work on a variety of projects for multiple clients, and his role became more project-based as he took on new responsibilities and learned new skills. "It's where the whole freelance thing and many hats really took off, at least professionally. I didn't just do social media for three years. I didn't just write TV spots for three years. I didn't just develop tone of voice guides for three years. Every single engagement asked for a different thing, a different product. We grew and learned and tried to do it."
- However, after three years, the repetition and predictability of the projects began to become a bit monotonous for Sam and he realized it was time to move on and continue searching for that "challenging creative fulfillment."
- In high school, Sam had discovered Speech and Debate, also known as Forensics, and became involved in the competitive acting aspect of it, specifically the humorous one-person performance event. He eventually realised that he was a much better coach than a performer, "because the people I was coaching were beating me." Sam also found there elements of Speech and Debate that he liked doing more, "for example putting together the actual performance where you have to cut it down into 10 minutes and write the message and craft what the performance looks like and the structure of it and when you're gonna move and what the characters are gonna look like. I liked creating all that stuff more than I actually liked performing it in the moment."
- Over the course of 12 years of participating and coaching in Speech and Debate, his motivations for being involved have changed, but his main goal has always been to embrace the first-person storytelling potential of the medium to find stronger, clearer authentic language that helps people find their voice and connect with an audience."
- Recently, Sam became more expressive in his personal brand and started doing freelance brand and strategy work after returning from three-month trip to Southeast Asia. "One of the projects that I couldn't turn down was helping Visa with their TikTok activation for the Men's World Cup and the agency that was working with them. And that was great – I served as a social media strategist and it was my first time really articulating social media strategy in a deck format. Another one I recently got brought on to do was just very quick consulting with a climate change nonprofit that's trying to reframe how we think about sustainability."
- "What I hope to be doing more of in the future is very TikTok or very content oriented. So whether that's actually making TikTok content or it's just strategizing about the best way to exist on social media for a brand or for a small company, or it's being a liaison between a brand and already famous creators on TikTok to help out a campaign. That's like my dream work, creative brainstorming through the lens of social media being able to think and talk about what someone should do and then help them execute a brand persuasive angle for the betterment of people."
The Red Thread
- Sam has always been drawn to creativity within structure and within frameworks, where there is a persuasive goal. "I was always drawn to creativity for a purpose for persuasion, for an outcome, to get a rise, to get a laugh, to get an action. I was drawn to that before I knew I was conscious of it and advertising is that and so is the part-time speech and debate that I do, right? I am crafting a story to get something done."
- "I like new. I like different." Sam is curious about people and creating content. He enjoys the challenge of taking on new projects and gets great joy and pleasure from the chase. "The idea of being handed something new that I haven't done is almost one of the highest values I have. I'm not even really too particular about what I'm being asked to do as long as someone wants me to do it for them."
- Sam enjoys attention and was a very misbehaved kid in middle school, trying to get a rise out of his teachers. "I've always had that little narcissistic, Bo Burnham, give-me-attention, performer side of me. Since I was three years old there are stories of me liking to perform for people. The core of it is because you like bringing people joy."
- "One of my highest values of coaching now is seeing the growth and joy and achievement of another person that I helped create simply by helping them create. Right? God it feels so damn good. Go to any religion they'll tell you that the meaning of life has to help others. And guess what, they're all freaking right."
- "One of my favourite quotes I say to students a lot is, 'hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard. But if talent works hard, you're f**ked.' And it's true. You're born with certain gifts and you should lean into them if you have them. The attention economy that we are finding ourselves in is about searching for eyeballs. And I think that's exactly what the benefit of competition in this regard is."
Sam's thoughts on being a grokkist
- "To grok, which is a way to find your own path and your own education and put different pieces together, is very much something that resonates with me. I do think I view myself as a grokkist. It's a path towards learning that I hope is something that can resonate with everyone and especially I think in the last decade or two, it's been easier than ever. I actually just finished a nice fun conversation with my grandmother about finding your own way. And a lot of that conversation made me realize how much of my ability to find my own way is thanks to the internet, and because I have so many tools at my disposal to find what I want to do and seek out next."
- Sam considers himself bonkers obsessed with social media. "At it's core, it's just a curiosity about people. And every single person, across every single political affiliation, religious affiliation, least in the more developed world, has that thing in their hand that can make content. And they're doing it, words and pictures, and that's just wild to me. so I try to understand all the different language being used across all of these different places, I don't know, it's just the innate curiosity about human beings."
- "I started to realize that I was digging into the internet more than most people were. You hear the classic algorithmic feedback loop, you see the world that is already yours reflected back at you. When I find myself going down a rabbit hole or seeing the algorithm or thinking that I think maybe I've been figured out too much, I will consciously unfollow a ton of people or consciously follow someone new that I would never actually have any interest in, like a mommy blogger. I'm not raising any kids right now, but let's see what their content is, right?"
- "If everyone growing up could have a smartphone, it would be a life-changing learning experience across the entire world, right? If people could have the electricity, keep it powered, the data connectivity to reach things in a timely manner, and the hardware, in their hands, regardless of where they are in the world, that is a life-changing learning experience. Because guess what? You've got everything. Everything you could ever want to know in the palm of your hands."
Reflections on practice
- Sam notes that social media is similar to migration of people in real life, where people flock to the platform where their community is and once they have established a home there, they generally tend to stay unless something drastic happens with the platform.
- Personal branding is about telling a personal story, whereas a brand brand is about telling a collective story that people agree to play out.
- The line between advertising and authenticity is philosophical, as a business should aim to do their best in the moment, to help the most people with the best intentions. Brand building involves helping someone better tell their story. However, it is important to keep in mind that advertising can be as much of a lie as one chooses it to be, and the authenticity of a message should align with the actions taken.
- Sam reflects on the success of recommendation media, especially TikTok, and how its algorithm and user experience is contributing to its popularity. "If you're making something of quality, it will get to the people who need to see it. You don't have to spend a dime on advertising. You need to just spend your money on creative output. And that's so exciting."
- When people ask Sam if he is afraid others won't like him or if being too weird and aggressive means he won't get hired, he tells them this: "Lil Nas X is currently one of the most popular artists in the world. He is pushing every single boundary of language and body movement you could possibly imagine. He is my idol. And I think any company worth their salt should bring in that man to do anything they want him to do or he would want to do. That's kind of the mindset I try to take to build my own self-confidence, which is I'm gonna be myself. I'm not talking about myself in any of those superlatives. I'm just saying that when I express myself in a way that tries to feel as authentic as Lil Nas X expresses himself, I hope that it's being received by people who want that creation in their lives regardless of what it is I'm doing."
- On Program Oral Interpretation performances: "We're emotional decision makers. The beauty of these events is it's 'I want there to be an outcome because of who I am. I am after a goal, I'm after understanding and it is because I have lived like this.' Whether the performances are intellectual or policy-driven, or more emotional and just really like 'I want you to understand my lived experience', the beauty of program oral interpretation is both of those work. And that's art to some degree, right? That's why anyone writes a memoir. It's kind of first person storytelling."
- On the benefits of Speech and Debate: "It's a confidence builder. It's a truth-speaking builder. It helps you dig more into who you are as a person and your mind and what you want from the world and what you're interested in and what you value. It grows people as people in a way that I think any competitive activity does. But what I really like at speech and debate is how much language is attached to it. You are required to find your own voice. Literally. You must find your own words. And a lot of my coaching is pushing people to challenge their own language to find stronger, clearer authentic language. It's speak your truth. Speak what you believe is right in that moment."
Stuff We Mentioned
- Sam's work for Mike Birbiglia's show "The New One"
- Sam's social cities article
- Video of Sam's student Aria Dadawante, 2016’s NSDA National Champion in Progam Oral Interpretation