Friday, January 30, 2015

Is the client always right?

When you're shopping for a new outfit and shriek "I love it!" the salesclerk in the Dress Department will process your credit card with a smile, even though the dress makes you look like a sequin-spangled sausage. The customer is always right. 

But what about the client? Not in my experience. And I see it as an integral part of my job to tell them that - in a kind, supportive way - when necessary.

I am more than a salesclerk in the Word Department. I want my clients to show themselves in their best light, whether they're giving a speech or publishing something under their byline. Unfortunately, sometimes that means I have to disagree, or correct, or - here's the right word: Advise.

I learned that lesson early on in my career as a speechwriter. I sat in the executive's inner sanctum with my team, listening to the client speak the words I had written. (It's always a thrill.) When the client got to the end of the speech he looked at me and said, "What? Do you get paid by the word?" (Of course not!) He said, "There's too many words in here." And he proceeded to read the opening paragraphs again, taking out the verbs. Obviously, it made no sense. Equally obviously, the speaker had no idea he was making no sense. But how do you teach a grown man about grammar? I took the speech back from him: "I'll fix it for you." The speech he ultimately delivered had shorter sentences and fewer adjectives. But every sentence had a verb. The client is not always right.

One day, another client called to give me an assignment. He wanted to write a piece about something that had generated bad press for him, to explain why the critics had been wrong and he had been right. The event had happened years earlier and been forgotten by just about everyone...except my client. The assignment would have generated a nice fee for me, but I couldn't see any upside for him. I told him I thought he was making a mistake and I wouldn't help him do it. It hurt - I could have used the money at the time. Even when the client isn't right, I need to be. (Click to tweet.)

So when clients hire me, they get my advice as well as my words. They may not always make what I think is the right choice - in the end, it's their decision. But I'll always do my best to steer them away from the sequins.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tick, tick

I've been doing a lot of waiting lately.

Not just waiting for that "epic, historic" storm event we were promised today. It may have been that elsewhere, but not where I am. Too bad, too, because I had a great name for it: Blizznado 2015.

No, I've also been waiting for work. Got two potentially epic and historic events of my own in the offing. One is a writing gig, a long-form project the likes of which I've never done before - but I'm confident I could ace. I've already written a sample chapter (that was Round 1 in the bake-off) and edited it (Round 2). Last I heard I was one of the front-runners. But they haven't reached a decision yet. Tick, tick.

The other is a more creative and even potentially lucrative job (and when was the last time you ever read the words "creative" and "lucrative" in the same sentence?) that would transport me out of the land of Blizznadoes and into a sunnier clime for an entire week. That week is only a week (or possibly two) away, but the clients have yet to make up their minds. Tick, tick.

Now it occurs to me that these jobs have something in common with Blizznado. They all require me to wait. I can't make the clients decide any more than I can force the snow to fall. Or not to fall, depending on your preference. (I like snow - but then I don't have to shovel it.)

Where the jobs and the storm differ is that the jobs would keep me extraordinarily busy; the blizzard allows me to relax. (See above.) So I'm trying to embrace the downtime I have now; in a couple of months it could be in short supply.

One of the first things I ever heard about freelancing - years before I thought of doing it myself - is that when you have the time to relax, you don't have the money and when you have the money you don't have the time. That will certainly be true if either (or both! please, both!) of those jobs comes through.

In the meantime, I'm working on "letting go." And breathing - a lot of deep breathing - every time my mind thinks Tick, tick.

Sunday, January 25, 2015


So here we are, the last day of the Your Turn Challenge. What have I learned?

I can in fact blog for seven days in a row if I choose to. No surprise there, actually.

The surprise happened back on day 4 when I articulated the difference between shipping for my clients (no problem, do it all the time) and shipping for myself.

I learned I have to treat myself like a client. That my work has to be as important to me as my clients' work is.

I also learned - because I really did write and ship these blog posts every day - that I can work on a weekend (as now) or a holiday (Monday, the first day of the challenge) and emerge none the worse for wear.

I've been working from home for a couple of decades now, and I've never really drawn a sharp distinction between "work time" and "downtime." I couldn't; my office was practically in the middle of the house - with no doors to shut. And I was always ready to work whenever a client called, even when the rest of the world took a holiday. But a couple of years ago, I moved - and the office in my new space had a door. I learned to shut it on Friday evening and keep it closed until Monday morning. Okay, I could check email on my iPad. But I didn't sit down in my work space. I finally I had time, I told myself, to rejuvenate, to "sharpen my saw" as the Franklin Covey people say. And I became very reluctant to work on the weekend (unless the work absolutely demanded it).

Now, I could have banked my blogs for this challenge, scheduled them to hit on the appointed days. But I wanted to find out what it would be like to write on my days off. I'll admit, I was a little grumpy about it on Monday. But even though I'm away from home this weekend, I managed both to ship and to enjoy myself. Imagine that!

I'll be shipping more often from now on, so please check back from time to time. And if I manage to say anything that strikes a chord for you, hit the comments button and say hi.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Zora & Me

I hadn't read a ton of Zora Neale Hurston - just the magnificent novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. (Haven't read it? Do it now.) And at some point in the foggy past I might have read her not entirely accurate autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road.

Anyway, I hadn't read a ton of Hurston's work, but when I got the assignment to write a speech to be delivered at a college in Florida, she was the first thing I thought of. Maybe because the speaker was an African American man. Maybe because I often try to give male speakers women to quote (if the quotes are on point). I'd even once been audacious enough to hook a speech for a financial industry exec on a quotation by pioneering French feminist and existentialist Simone de Beauvoir. Back then, the financial industry was even more macho than it is today, but the quotation was absolutely on point - and the executive's wife had an important job herself, so I figured he'd be cool with it.

But I digress: As surprising as that experience was (today the Your Turn Challenge wants to hear how I have surprised myself), it pales in comparison to the Zora Neale Hurston Incident. So back to our story:

I had a little lead time before writing this speech, so I went to the bookstore and bought Of Mules and Men, Hurston's compilation of African American folktales from the south. Interesting, but it didn't provide the hook I was looking for.

I pounded out a couple of drafts, but I still hadn't found the right hook. Then something stopped me cold. This college was in Florida. Wait - didn't Hurston have some association with Florida? This was back in the days before Wikipedia, so I had to invest some effort in researching my hunch. She was born in Florida. But that wasn't it. Yes! She also taught in Florida. At a college. The same college my exec was speaking at. After that, the speech practically wrote itself.

This was the first time in my career I'd ever experienced something like that - an idea welling up from my subconscious that turned out to be exactly the right idea, even though I didn't recognize it initially. It's the same sort of thing I wrote about yesterday. Each time it happens I'm amazed. But it's true what they say: You never forget your first time.

Friday, January 23, 2015

"A problem like Maria"

I hate writing promo copy about the speeches I write - especially when they want the blurb three months before I've even started writing the speech. But there I was: My guy was speaking at a conference and the conference wanted to advertise it.

So I was hunkered down at my desk with promo copy due that very day. Fingers hovering over the keyboard. Staring at a blank screen. And this song starts playing in my head: "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" You know - the song the nuns sing in The Sound of Music. (Other people might hear Beyoncé; I'm a musical theatre geek.)

I shook my head, trying to swat the song away. Fingers over keyboard. Deep breath. "How do you solve a problem like Maria?"

"Shut up," I told my brain. "I'm trying to get an idea."

"How do you solve a problem like Maria?"

And then I realized: The song wasn't a distraction. It was my speech.
How do I get unstuck? (That's what the #YourTurnChallenge folks want to know today.) Sometimes it's just a matter of getting out of my own way.

Oh, and the speech? It won an award. 

You can read the opening here. If you'd like to see the full text, shoot me an email - elaine (at)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Ship Happens

Today the #YourTurnChallenge asks me to think about something I do well...and then teach my readers how to do it.

One thing I do well is, in Godin-speak, Ship.

Well, yes and no. Yes, I am a first-rate shipper when it comes to others: In decades of writing for clients, I have never missed a deadline.

But when it comes to my own work...not so much. I could pretend otherwise, but a quick look at the dates of previous blog posts would give me away very quickly.

Even though it's something I do well only sometimes, I'm going to write about shipping. Perhaps the excellent shipper-for-clients can teach something to the inconsistent shipper-for-myself. And you're welcome to read along, too.

I feel a sense of responsibility to my clients.

My clients have deadlines - If they've accepted an invitation to give a speech on a specific date and time, I need to ship that speech at least a week earlier.

My clients have goals - they trust that I will send them to the podium with something compelling and memorable to say.

Well, it doesn't take a genius to see where this is going. I unfailingly meet my clients' deadlines, yet I rarely set deadlines for myself. I deliver on my clients' goals; I rarely articulate my own. I feel a sense of responsibility to my clients because they are paying the bills. But my own work - like blogging, to build a wider pool of potential clients - that waits until I have "something to say."

I'm only halfway through this weeklong blogging challenge (let's hear it for Day 4!) and it's clear to me that if I need to write, I will find something to say. "Need," for me (I'm learning) requires a commitment. And while I'm great at making and keeping commitments to my clients, I have a pretty woeful track record of doing so for myself. Yes, "Ship" happens. But only when I make it happen.

So here's a commitment: I will blog at least twice a week. And finally get my monthly newsletter going. Sign up for it in the box to the left.

Ship, ship, hooray!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Chambers for Improvement

Today's prompt for the #YourTurnChallenge is "Tell us about something that you think should be improved."

That's an easy one to answer after last night's State of the Union Address. The usual phrase is "room for improvement." But after hearing the constant stream of disrespect in the House Chamber as the president spoke last night, I have to say we have "Chambers for improvement" (no, I'm not exempting the Senators).

Whether or not one agrees with President Obama, he is the elected leader of our country. Twice elected, as he reminded those who applauded his comment that he has no more campaigns to run. And while the president's zinger may have been more appropriate to a campaign rally than a State occasion, the derisive applause that prompted it was boorish and completely unbecoming.

How can we expect Congress to engage in the productive debate required to solve the challenges facing this country when they can't even give Mr. Obama forty-five minutes of polite attention?

Lack of audience civility aside, for me it was the best-written State of the Union Address that President Obama has delivered. Less a laundry list of programs and more a narrative about the values we share (or, depending on your politics, the values he wishes we would share). Congratulations to the White House speechwriting team.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


You need to present your credentials to a potential client. But if they're in the room with you, it's safe to assume they already know something about your strengths. So what's the most important thing to say?

I once sat through a meeting that the leader of the pitching team started by presenting his and his firm's credentials...for two hours. Literally. (And yes, I literally mean "literally.") No one could derail the runaway train of his mouth - believe me, I tried. The only thing that stopped the monologue was an assistant popping in to see if we wanted to order lunch. Oh boy, did we ever!

In two hours of talking, he never managed to say the six little words that should start any first meeting with a potential client:

What can we do for you?

Say the six magic works and then close your mouth and open your ears. Because how can you serve your clients if you don't know what they want? (Click to tweet)

Many people talk about listening, but few people actually do it. I think that's because it requires a certain level of courage: What if what they want isn't what I want to do? What if it's beyond my expertise? What if I fail? It's a lot easier not to fail if you never articulate a goal.

Listening isn't the only way to win clients - I just think it's the best way. It shows you respect them and their business. It's a great way to build a relationship.

And what about that guy who delivered the two-hour monologue? Believe it or not, the clients actually hired his firm. But they never listened to a word he said.

Friday, January 16, 2015

My turn (and yours)

Maybe a decade ago, my then-partner opened a package at work and found a book. Someone had sent it to her because she wrote about small businesses, and this was a book of advice for businesspeople. Well, for people. And for businesses. But not, she thought, for her audience.

She called me: "I got this book about business. You're a business writer, maybe you'd like to read it."

"Who wrote it?"

"Some guy named Seth Godin." He edited it, she said, from contributions by a long list of people. She reeled off the names, the A-list of business writers: Dan Pink, the speechwriter who branded freelancing as a profession. Malcolm Gladwell, the brilliant social analyst whose work I first found in The New Yorker. And then, amid the who's who of business literati, one name leapt out. Not a business expert - as far as I knew - but someone I'd definitely heard of: My ex. Well, "ex" may be putting it a little too strongly. Someone I had dated after college and since lost track of.

And that's why I read The Big Moo. Not because of the subject, not because of the famous co-authors but because of this trailmix-munching creature I met at an old friend's party in the latter part of the 20th century.

They say you get something valuable out of every relationship. It took a few decades but that post-collegiate fling led me to Seth Godin, and I am very glad for it. I recommend his work constantly, especially to people who believe that "sophisticated" has to mean "complicated," that "smart" and "readable" cannot coexist.

Seth's most recent book, What to Do When It's Your Turn (and It's Always Your Turn), has some powerful things to say about fear and change and action. "Action," for a writer, means writing - something I have done only spottily on this blog, something I have determined to do more of in 2015.

And that brings me to Monday, Day 1 of a challenge to "ship every day" - blog every day for a week. Winnie Kao, the Godin-phile who created it, calls it the Your Turn Challenge. Join me. I expect to learn something about myself. Maybe you can too.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

And I quote...

Which is more powerful?

Abigail Adams reminded her husband John to "remember the ladies" when drafting the new nation's Constitution.

Abigail Adams didn't just remind her husband John to "remember the ladies" when drafting the new nation's Constitution. She also issued a warning: "If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."

Many people know the "remember the ladies" quotation. And it's fine, as far as it goes. But look at the primary source (or in this case, the primary source as reprinted on a website) and you find something much more interesting. As far back as Colonial times, women were prepared to disregard laws that disregarded them! [Pardon me while I stop to imagine what history would have looked like if that rebellion had truly taken hold.]

But back to my point: Whatever you're writing, take the time to ferret out the primary sources. That's where the gold lies. (Click to tweet.) In the corporate world, that may just mean a 15-minute conversation with the person you're writing for.

Gatekeepers have their place in the business world - many executives keep impossible schedules and couldn't possibly speak to everyone who wants to claim their time. But if a speech is important enough to make it onto the speaker's calendar, it's important enough to have an interview with the speechwriter.

The gatekeepers may think they know exactly what the executive wants to say - and when it comes to policy and practices, they're probably right. But they can't supply the human touch, the personal touch that makes any communication memorable.

Gatekeepers can only guess at what the principal is thinking, They may know some relevant anecdotes but unless they shadow the exec 24/7, they won't have them all. And the more intermediaries between speaker and writer, the weaker the story becomes. It's like the children's game of "Telephone," where a phrase faithfully repeated down a chain of listeners ends up hopelessly garbled. "We won't obey laws that don't represent us" becomes "remember the ladies."

Interviewing the subject up front will save everyone time on the back end (less rewriting). And the end product - whether speech or op-ed, or just a post in an internal newsletter - will be stronger for it. And you can quote me on that.