Monday, June 20, 2016

Moving to WordPress

Hey folks,

I've moved the blog over to WordPress, so please visit us at


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

My own medicine

This morning's post comes from the "Do As I Say, Not As I Do" Desk.

I wish we could tie all the acronyms in the world in a bagful of rocks and throw it in the nearest river. But when I wrote about that a few weeks ago, I granted a reprieve to generally well-known acronyms, like FBI.

Of course, the definition of "generally well-known" depends on your audience. As I was reminded by a couple of loving "ahems" from two quite intelligent friends who have been paying close attention to my recent writing. And my increasing use of the term "C-Suite."

I could argue that C-Suite is an abbreviation, not an acronym. I'd win that argument, too. But the larger point is that not everyone understands what it means. "C-Suite" encompasses all those folks with "Chief" in their titles—Chief Financial Officer, Chief Information Officer, Chief Ethics & Compliance Officer. A business audience will understand it, but my friends have built careers outside of the corporate world. If you want to speak to a broader audience than that, you'd do well to avoid it.

I said "a business audience will understand it," but as I wrote those words I remembered that, in fact, when I first encountered the term it puzzled me. As has every piece of business jargon I've encountered in over 25 years of writing for the corporate world. The first time one of my Wall Street bosses praised a speech I'd written by saying, "You really added value here, Elaine," I had to suppress a giggle all the way back to my office. "Value" seemed a very odd way to describe creativity. But I digress.

In using the term "C-Suite" without explanation, I had fallen victim to what Chip and Dan Heath call (in their excellent book Made to Stick) the Curse of Knowledge—"the difficulty of remembering what it was like not to know something." I've built a career on not being "cursed" by too much knowledge of the business world. It's how I justified not pursuing an MBA years ago, when I write for so many people who have that degree. I figure my "value" to them is that I can recognize the difference between complex ideas and, you will pardon the expression, bullshit couched in complex language. The former I explain, the latter I call out.

Anyway, lesson learned. "C-Suite" will become, I guess, "leading executives." Excuse me, I've got to go rewrite my marketing materials now.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Getting to know you: Understanding "Authenticity"

Authenticity has been a huge buzzword in business for a while. As I read it, businesses mean that a gay employee should not have to hide his husband's in a desk drawer; a parent—of whatever gender—should not have to pretend that being at the kid's school play is less important than sitting in a meeting; an African American employee can wear her hair any damn way she pleases, even (especially) if it doesn't look like "white" hair.

Hiding one's true self requires an awful lot of effort, effort that most of us would much rather spend on—oh, I don't know—doing our work. And, yes, just about everyone "covers" some aspect of their personality, as this excellent research report by Deloitte made clear a few years ago. Even straight, white men—the folks that everyone but Beyoncé assumes "rule the world"—even half of them have something they cover. Imagine if we stopped expending energy in covering and just lived our lives.

"Authenticity" is starting to generate a backlash, though. And that makes me sad, both as a writer and as a human being. If you have never been in a position where you felt you had to hide some part of who you are, you are very lucky indeed. Federal law now recognizes my marriage, but in more than half the states in the U.S. an employer could fire me for putting my wife's photo on my desk. So authenticity means a lot to me as a person.

And as a writer and writing coach, I know the most effective way for my clients to connect with the audiences they want to reach is to allow themselves to be seen as human. By which I mean vulnerable (so they can demonstrate their strength) and occasionally fallible (so they can show how failure enabled their later successes). As the cliché goes, nobody's perfect. Audiences want to feel that.

And whether it's a speech or a written piece, audiences also want to connect with your real personality. Are you introspective? Let us in on your thought process. Are you funny? Don't be afraid to make a joke. I'm not saying to turn your presentation into a Robin Williams-style free-association free-for-all. But laughter is a great gift to give people, and there's no quicker way to create a bond between you and the people reading your words or listening to you speak.

What does authenticity NOT mean? It does not mean saying the first thing that pops into our heads. It does not give people a license to be publicly rude or sexist, as this op-ed from The New York Times implies.

But what if I am authentically rude or sexist? I hear you ask. Then the norms of polite society—and corporate culture, which tends to enforce its norms more forcefully—will soon put you in your place. And I hope you enjoy it.

Brené Brown posted a rejoinder to the Times op-ed on LinkedIn this weekend and restated her complex definition of authenticity. Have a read:
"The core of authenticity is the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable, and to set boundaries."
That's who I want to be. That's who I want my clients to be. How about you?

Monday, June 6, 2016

Keep the kimono closed!

Am I alone?

Who else cringes when you hear an executive talk about "opening the kimono"?

I don't know, maybe they think it's cool to use a multicultural reference—the phrase obviously originates in Japan. Or maybe they just like thinking about a slender, submissive Geisha disrobing for her customer. I had always assumed it referred to samurai demonstrating that they were unarmed. But wherever it comes from, it should go back there. Quickly.

While the orators who use it may be thinking of beautiful, naked women, when hear the phrase I picture the speaker opening his kimono. And that is generally not a pretty picture. Really, the last thing I want to think about in a business context is a flabby, hairy, naked, middle-aged man. (Apologies to any of you reading this over breakfast.)

It should go without saying in this day and age—I just checked the calendar and yes, we really are still talking about casual sexism in 2016—that talking about or implying naked anyone in a business context is just plain inappropriate. Unless you work for Playboy—but even they've stopped publishing nude photos.

Let's all agree: Keep the freaking kimono closed.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Patience, grasshopper

I'm not the kind of gal who laughs in church. But that's exactly what I did when our friend took us to his parish church in Rio de Janeiro and I came face to face with my patron saint.

I hadn't known he was my patron saint—in fact, I'd never heard of him before—but the name at the base of his statue translated from the Portuguese loud and clear: Santo Expedito (translation: Saint Hurry-Up) or St. Expeditus, for those of you who like your saints in Latin.

I am many things, many of which are good. But one thing I am not is patient.

So I am working on it. They say meditation will help. When I get past five minutes on my own, I'll let you know.

In the meantime, Santo Expedito sits on my desk, holding up his cross that says "Hodie" (translation: Today, dammit).

Saturday, June 4, 2016

J-Lo & Socrates: Pop Culture Saturday

Today's Pop Culture Saturday post comes from the archives:
When pop culture meets, well, culture culture the results can be unintentionally hilarious.

Jennifer Lopez plays a high school teacher in her movie The Boy Next Door. At one point, the hunk of the title brings her a gift: A leatherbound book with gilt-edged pages - a volume that would have been right at home in Queen Victoria's library. J-Lo demurs that she can't accept such an expensive gift. "This is a first edition!" she says, checking inside.

One small problem. The book is very clearly marked "The Iliad by Homer."

See it for yourself here (you'll have to sit through a 30-second ad, but trust me it's worth it.)

Apologies if I've spoiled The Boy Next Door for you, but I don't really think there's a lot of overlap between my readership and J-Lo's target demographic. Likewise probably not a lot of overlap between her viewership and classical scholars. What percentage of Americans even know that there was a famous Homer before The Simpsons?

While the dumbing-down of popular culture may spell the end of Civilization As We Know It, there's an equally challenging trend I need to watch out for as a business writer: "smartening-up."

The first time I was asked to write on the subject of Ethics, I went straight to the source: Aristotle. I mean, who better than "the father of Ethics"? Now, I'm no dummy - the speech wasn't entirely about ancient Greek philosophy. I tied Aristotle to a contemporary event, in which journalism students had gotten caught cheating on an exam. And not just any Ethics exam.

It was a great speech. But it was not a great speech for that particular speaker. And in the end, that's really all that matters. So I gave Aristotle the heave-ho in favor of material that better fit my executive's brand. And the world became a more ethical place, at least for an hour.

LBJ knew this stuff innately. Maybe not Ethics, but brand-building. When his writers showed him a draft that used some words of wisdom from Socrates, he didn't cut the quotation - the sentiment was too good. He just crossed out "Socrates" and substituted "my granddaddy."
President Johnson was a smart man. He just didn't want too many people to know it.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Too good to lose, not good enough to win

Seven hits and more than a dozen walks. The Mets had 20 men on base in Wednesday afternoon's game—and scored exactly one run. The White Sox tied it up in the eighth, and the frustration continued for five more innings as I thought about the air conditioning back in my office. The Mets were not bad enough to lose, but not quite good enough to win, either.

Business writing is often like that. And as a writer—and as an audience member—it drives me crazy. I'm not saying our clients need to swing for the fences every time. Not every utterance needs to be provocative or world-changing. But so often, they fear anything that strays from the mom-and-apple-pie norm.

Talk about your successes, yes—but be honest about your struggles, too. Because overcoming those struggles put you in the position to achieve those successes. When you have the opportunity to reach an audience, whether through a speech or in writing, use that opportunity to say something. Fill the empty space with something worth your audience's while. Be good enough to win.

Sometimes that requires taking a risk. But that's the only way to get the reward.

As for the game, well the White Sox play in the American League, where  designated hitters bat in place of the pitchers. But by the 13th inning yesterday, the Sox were out of options so they sent their relief pitcher to the plate. He's only stood in the batter's box three times in his entire career. Risk? You bet.

The guy hit a double—I can still hear the crack of the ball on his bat. A couple plays later, he scored the winning run. [Sigh.] Risk often leads to reward. I wish the Mets had thought of that.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Wanna bet?

In his book Steal Like an Artist (read it, and its companion piece Show Your Work, as fast as you can), Austin Kleon writes about what he calls the creativity in subtraction:
"Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat with only 236 different words, so his editor bet him he couldn't write a book with only 50 different words. Dr. Seuss came back and won the bet with Green Eggs and Ham, one of the bestselling children's books of all time."
One of my favorite lyricists, the great Lorenz Hart, wrote his song "I Could Write a Book" on a dare, too. Some fool at a dinner party bet him that he couldn't rhyme "bookends." Check out the link to see how he did it.

A bet can be a great motivator. Set a goal—whether it's to use a certain structure in your next creative endeavor or to stretch your comfort zone in a specific way—and make a bet with yourself, or a friend. You never know what brilliance you'll unleash.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Things I don't believe in

I don't believe in Bigfoot. Or that thing in Loch Ness. I don't believe in monsters under the bed (any fan of Pixar movies knows they come from the closet). And I don't believe in writer's block.

Probably half the people reading right now think I've just set myself up for something horrible. Like the scantily clad sorority girl in the slasher movies who barges into the deserted building with a blithe, "Nothing to worry about in here." Famous last words.

That's not to say I haven't put in my time staring at a blank computer screen. Or praying, like Salieri in Amadeus, for inspiration to strike NOW. Of course I have; I'm human.

But I don't call that "writer's block." I call it working.

Give it a label and you pathologize the behavior. It's not a disease; it's part of the process.

Writers need to think before we create. We need to synthesize ideas, macerate them so the flavors meld and create something new. Sometimes that process takes more time than we'd like. I've come to realize that if I can't think of an idea on a topic I'm supposed to be writing about, it means I probably don't have enough information. Time for more research.

Okay, it's not exactly as smooth as that sentence made it sound. "I've come to realize"—yes, but do I always remember that "I've come to realize"? Or do I spend a few frustrating hours trying to pound a square peg into a nonexistent hole before I identify what's going on? You might think I'd get better at doing this—or at least faster—after 25 years as a professional writer. (Well, you might not think that. But I do.)

Even if I'm not always quick enough to recognize and jump over the hurdle, I still understand that's all it is—a hurdle. It's not a disease, not a psychopath waiting to rob me of my ability to write. It's a process.

Don't make the fear stronger by feeding it. Walk away, clear your head, write something else. And if you must name something, name the glorious feeling of your fingers flying over the keyboard: the Write Stuff.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

When s'more is less: Fewer messages = greater impact

The new owners of the house behind my friend's house tore up their entire backyard. Out with the grass. In with a blond stone patio; a giant, gas-fed fire pit; an L-shaped bar; a cinderblock wall clad (like the bar) in more blond stones; and, at either end of said wall, a stone bowl with a turquoise glaze inside.

Bird baths? Fountains? Nope. Two more gas fire pits.

No waiting for s'mores at this house!

This phenomenon crops up a lot in the world of business writing. Department A has its content in the article, so Departments B through Z need equal time. No—no, they don't.

In communications, more is not better. Assuming, that is, that your goal is to say something.

One message can be heard and remembered. Throw two messages at the audience—whether it's in writing or in a speech—and you may have a shot that one of them will stick. Add any more messages and it stops being a communication and becomes an exercise in self-congratulation.

Now, I know we could all use more exercise. But if your job is to create messages, you've got an obligation—to the company that hired you and to your own self-esteem as a writer—to convey those messages as clearly as you can. And to make sure they don't drown in a tsunami of extraneous information.

We did a little neighbor-watching this weekend. And guess what? No one even looked at the other two fires. Turns out that backyard fire pits are like corporate messages: one really awesome one is all you need.

Monday, May 30, 2016

[ ... ]


(Go relax!)

Sunday, May 29, 2016

I scream. You...?

After working six-day weeks for the last few months, I took last weekend off. And, dammit, I'm unplugging some this weekend too. It's a three-day weekend here in the U.S.—I deserve to rest for at least two of those days.

Now, I suggest you stop reading blogs and go eat some ice cream. I can personally vouch for the selections in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Working as fast as I can on the rest.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The more things change...

Memorial Day 2002, about a decade into my freelance career. Apparently I had trouble unplugging.
Paradise Post

I'm on vacation this week. Vacation, in the world of the freelancer, means doing about the same amount of work that you'd normally do, but with a nicer view.

And so it is with me. I've got the scut work, the writing work, and the volunteer work, which I volunteered to do this week because, after all, I'd be on vacation. (Will I ever learn?) In between, I hope to find some time to be creative—and my dog hopes I'll find some time to walk her.

Meanwhile there's a lovely breeze...spreading the pollen around. And did I mention the nice view?

Here's wishing you the same.
The good news is I have learned.

Not working this weekend...not after today, anyway. That means two days off with the spousal unit: different spouse, different dog, same view. Happy official start of summer, everyone.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The love of bad ideas

Good ideas don't spring to life fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. They slip into the world incognito, often disguised as bad ideas.

Being afraid of having a bad idea is the surest way to shut off the flow of ideas altogether. So I welcome them.

I learned this lesson very early in my career. The Berlin Wall had fallen, Eastern European countries were exploring democracy and capitalism, and my guy had to speak about it. Every day, it seemed, saw the birth of a new nation. Aha!

"Birth is messy and bloody," I wrote. Then my fingers froze in midair. What are you thinking? (I thought.) This guy is a big, macho Wall Street exec. You're going to give him a placenta metaphor?

Ixnay on the placenta metaphor. But then what?

I stared at my computer. I stared at the walls of my cubicle. I squeezed my eyes shut real hard and snapped them open again. Nothing. Every thought in my head—every thought I would ever think for the rest of my life, apparently—was just a variation on that one, highly inappropriate, placenta metaphor.

So I gave in. I wrote the thing. I embellished it, added some (you should pardon the expression) color. I made it the placenta-iest paragraph anyone could ever imagine. Even a midwife would have said, "Enough, already!"

I printed out what I wrote and hung in on the wall in front of me. Having captured it for posterity (and my own continuing amusement in the months ahead), I deleted it from my computer.

And, whaddaya know? Getting the bad idea out of my head made room for good ones. The speech turned out just fine.

So if you can't get something out of your mind...get it out of your head. Post it or stash it in an "I Can't Believe I Tried to Write That" file. Share it with your friends over drinks. Just don't share it with your boss.

Speaking of bad ideas, here's the first title I came up with for this post:

You can learn a lot from a placenta

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Be prepared

Back in the early days of Bill Clinton's presidency, I came home and found my ex all jazzed up after watching Hillary give a speech on TV. "She was wonderful!" my ex gushed. "And she wasn't even speaking from notes!"

"No notes is not a good thing," I responded. "What do you think pays our mortgage?"

I'm a speechwriter so, yes, I may be a bit biased here. I would never step in front of a group of people without prepared remarks. (Knowing more about Secretary Clinton all these years later, I'm betting she wouldn't either.)

But no speech, no matter how well-written, will do its job effectively if you don't rehearse. And a big thank-you to Chris Anderson, the Curator of TED Talks, for saying that loud and clear.

Anderson calls lack of preparation exactly what it is: Rude. The people in your audience have taken time out of their busy day to hear you; the least you can do is spend some of your valuable time to give them a well-reasoned, well-delivered speech.

The best client I've had in over 25 years of writing speeches takes rehearsal very seriously. He wants his speeches locked two weeks in advance. Two weeks! Other speechwriters turn green with envy when I tell them that.

Many speakers press for changes until the last minute—and if you're dealing with a hot-button issue or a current event, that constant updating may be justified. But it takes a very skilled performer to incorporate new language on the fly. So pursuing perfection on the page often leads to imperfection on the stage. Which is more important to you? To your audience?

That kind of behavior doesn't fly with the TED folks. Unprepared, unrehearsed speakers don't get to climb on their iconic black stages.

Of course, TED has the clout to enforce that rule; most speechwriters don't. So let's get this message viral. Share this post or the linked article with your networks: #preparedspeakersrock

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Creativity travels faster

One of the wonderful things about creativity is the way it pings around the world, each reader or listener finding some new angle of inspiration.

I am amused and humbled to be the object of such a "ping." Yesterday I received an email from Deborah Claire Procter, a Welsh artist and arts promoter I met through an online coaching group. She posted an amusing image on Facebook last week and I picked it up in this blog post. My blog post has now become the subject of Deborah's most recent newsletter.

In the pre-Internet days they used to say "Good news travels fast." Creativity travels faster. Where will yours go today?

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Too Little/Too Much

Driving up across on the Pennsylvania Turnpike yesterday, I spotted an odd billboard. The name of the business in large letters, then a photograph, and in much smaller letters:

Denial Center


As I drove closer, my brain began to assemble the information into something more coherent. The two people in the photo had bright, wide smiles. The "i" was actually a "t." Not a Denial Center at all: a Dental Center.

It reminded me of a photo my friend Joan Garry snapped on a recent trip to Greensboro, North Carolina.

You would have no idea what goes on in this office...unless you already knew what goes on in this office. (And in that case, you wouldn't need the sign.)

The billboard in Pennsylvania offers too little information; the shop window in North Carolina too much—and none of it particularly helpful.

Business communications can easily veer between these extremes, too.

Do you speak in shorthand? Don't assume the reader or listener has the same amount of information you do. You don't have to rehash the entire history of a project, but specific details—maybe about why you made key choices—make your story memorable. Yes, it's great that doctor has a Dental Center. But we can get clean teeth almost anywhere; why should we go there?

Alternatively, do you bury your main message in layers of extraneous information? The only word in that window that relates in any way to the business conducted here is "floss." Yes, it's another Denial Dental office.

Sing? Dance? Travel? How could these words possibly convince me to entrust my teeth to the doctor in residence? I suppose you could make a case for using them in the context of a longer piece—a speech or an article—but here they add nothing to the reader's understanding. A complete waste of marketing space.

These dentists need to find the "just right"—the Goldilocks option. Any suggestions?

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Don'ts and Don'ts of Acronyms

--> Yes, yes, I know. These lists are usually "Do's and Don'ts" (note to my fellow grammar nerds, this article explains my choice of punctuation.) 

But when it comes to acronyms, just Don't. Practically ever.

To be clear, I'm not talking about common, everyday acronyms. Say you're writing about the FBI. You wouldn't write "the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), says..." right? It would be "the FBI says..." If you can safely assume that anyone who hasn't just crawled out from under a rock will know what the initials stand for without your spelling it out, by all means use the acronym.

But the rest of the time, don't use acronyms unless you absolutely must. 

Learning these ubiquitous collection of initials is like learning a foreign language. Literally. I know at least one company that hands its new hires an acronym dictionary so they can get fluent before their first day of work. 

Now, sometimes you need to learn a language. You can't order a croissant without speaking at least one word of French—unless you eat "crescent rolls," in which case it's probably best that we never have breakfast together. 

But if you're going to ask me to learn your acronym language, make it worth my while. If you're writing a piece on the Grand Widget Inspector and the term pops up frequently, then by all means let me know it's "the Grand Widget Inspector, also known as the GWI."

And just because legal contracts use the "phrase (acronym)" construction—"Grand Widget Inspector (GWI)"—doesn't mean you have to. 

General Rule of Writing: Unless you're writing a legal contract, don't make your work sound like a legal contract! Find a way to incorporate the acronym into the sentence, as I did at the end of the previous paragraph. It's much more elegant, and doesn't interrupt the flow of the thought.

Few things (in the word world) annoy me more than being asked to learn an acronym when that acronym never appears in the text again. Or when it doesn't reappear for long stretches of time. When that happens, spell out the phrase. Don't make me use precious space in my memory to store the translation.

And never use an acronym in the first sentence. There's no rule requiring you to offer the acronym the first time you use a phrase. Give your readers a chance to get interested in what you're trying to say before you start making them learn that foreign language. Plenty of time to introduce the acronym on the second mention.

I could go on. I will, at some point. But these are my MPPAA (Main Pet Peeves About Acronyms).

Sunday, May 22, 2016


My posts this weekend have appeared thanks to the magic of technology while I sit hundreds of miles away from my computer, quietly contemplating nature and the beauty of my fellow human beings.

Actually, I have no idea what I'll be doing, but I do know where I'll be doing it: A Quaker retreat center in the wilds of Pennsylvania. No, I am not a Quaker, though I am a big fan of their oatmeal.

A friend of mine recommended this retreat as a great way to unplug, relax, and maybe even learn something about myself. It sounded like a great idea in January, when I was all flush with New Year's Resolutions.

But when they sent me the schedule for the weekend, I saw it was peppered with daily blocks for worship. Quaker worship. That's a lot of sitting still and waiting for the Spirit to speak. Maybe this hasn't become completely apparent through my blogging, but "waiting for" anything is not my greatest strength.

Pray for me, and the Quakers—quietly. And enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Reputation outlives us all

The spousal unit watched the Minions movie while I was out of town, which reminded me of a blog I wrote after their screen debut in Despicable Me six years ago.

Aside from a few comic set pieces, I hated that movie. With my brain freed from worrying about the plot or characters, I found myself paying particular attention to the background details. And that led to this discussion of how a reputation can be ruined in an instant—no news there—but if it turns into enough of a pop culture moment, that reputation can stay ruined for a long, long time. Here's what I had to say in 2010 (you can tell it's a vintage piece because of the double space after every period):
The New York Times tells us that Wall Street is hiring again.  But don't break out the party hats and $2,000 bottles of Champagne just yet.  Wall Street has a reputation problem: Most firms will ignore it, but the smart firms will acknowledge and address it.

Yes I know, I know - Wall Street has a reputation problem every five or six years.  This is probably the third such cycle I've lived through since I started working in financial services in the late '80s.  Back then, the punchline was a survey on trustworthiness.  The good news, Wall Streeters were not the least trusted group in the nation; the bad news, they placed lower than the KKK.

How far has anti-Wall Street sentiment penetrated the public discourse in the current cycle?  I had occasion to sit through the animated feature Despicable Me this weekend (save yourselves - don't do it) during which the evil genius, seeking to finance his dastardly plan, visits the bank to secure a loan.  Not surprisingly, the sign over the door read:

"Bank of Evil"  

More surprising was the all-too-legible subhead:

"Formerly Known As Lehman Brothers"

Does it really matter what the movie-going public thinks?  Unlike consumer products companies, Wall Street firms believe they don't need to curry favor widely.  After all, their business model doesn't depend on millions of people buying a few dollars' worth of products; it depends on a few people (investment managers) buying millions of dollars' worth of products.

But there's another constituency eyeing Wall Street: the government.  Elected officials - and the regulatory agencies they control - are extremely sensitive to popular sentiment.  As the country gears up for the political fisticuffs of a midterm election, you can expect to see financial services executives on the hot seat.

The best way to handle this onslaught of negative publicity?  Don't fight it, roll with it.  If there was wrongdoing - or perceived wrongdoing - admit it.  That's what I advised Bankers Trust CEO Charlie Sanford to do when some of his derivatives traders were in the spotlight, and The New York Times approved.  Then find something positive your firm does and talk it up.

Making money isn't intrinsically evil. Without financial services firms, the world's economy would grind to a screeching halt.  Someone needs to tell this story, honestly and compellingly.

Sorry to depress you on a beautiful Saturday. Cheer yourself up by watching the Minions movie. The spouse enjoyed it. Who knew?

Friday, May 20, 2016

"You don't think like us."

"We love talking to you," my anchor client told me yesterday. "Because you don't think like us and you don't talk like us."

There's nothing wrong with them; it's not like their company's culture turns them into robots. But they find it refreshing to have access to an outsider's perspective.

That's what I pride myself on delivering. It's the promise implicit in the name of this blog, which I took from a New York Times headline: "For the clearest view, use someone else's eye."

As for me, I'm always on the lookout for people who see things differently. Like the person behind this photo I found on Facebook, a British comedian named Phil Lucas. Does the artwork exist? It hardly matters; the sign alone is brilliant.

It's easy to find people who think the way you do. Seek out the ones who think differently; your life and work will be richer for it.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A new Caped Crusader to the rescue

There's so much bad writing in the business world. It pains me that anyone has to read it. It pains me even more when I have to read it.

Look, I am about the most highly incentivized reader this dreck will ever have. Other than the person (or, more likely, the committee) who wrote it, no one—and I mean no one—cares more about what this stuff says than I do. That's because I'm being paid to read it. My job, more often than not, is to chip away at the jargon, untangle the convoluted syntax, and find at least one sensible nugget of information to expand on for my clients.

Really, though, it shouldn't be this hard.

I recently extended my business to include Coaching & Development, with the tagline—well, take a look at the logo:

"Making the world more interesting, one sentence at a time."

That statement makes me feel like a Caped Crusader, standing legs akimbo atop a tall building—a library, perhaps—and scanning the horizon for poorly trained writers about to commit verbicide on a white paper that will make its readers see red. If it has readers at all.

These writers need me. I can teach them how to create sensible sentences. How to jettison jargon. How to not overuse alliteration because, really, after the first instance it just starts to sound gimmicky. Right?

I'm on a mission to make the world more interesting, one sentence at a time. Join me—and tell your friends!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Write as if it's going to be read

Someone famously said there are two things no one should see being made: laws and sausages.

I would add a third item to that list—corporate reports: year-end round-ups, annual reports, board reports. Writing expected to embody an enterprise-wide viewpoint can generally be counted on to say too much about everything and not nearly enough about something—any one thing that sums up the organization's purpose or goal. These mega-reports are never written as much as they are extruded like the aforementioned sausages—information mashed together without an overarching message and expelled into the required format.

As an expert advisor to nonprofits, my friend Joan Garry has read (or struggled to read) her fair share of these things. She summed up her advice in this blog post. Joan advises carefully crafting the Executive Director's report as if it's the only part of the tome that will be read.

And if you want to keep your readers turning the pages after they finish the ED's report, I suggest you open each subsequent section with a story that captures the real-world impact of the organization's work. Nonprofits probably have an easier time finding stories that tug at the heartstrings, but every organization can find compelling stories of people who went above and beyond, grateful clients, lives positively impacted.

Tell those stories and your readers will stick around to the very last page.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

TED talking

TED Talks have made speeches chic again. (Hallelujah!) Everyone who doesn't dream of giving one dreams of writing one.

Yep, we're all eager to climb on the internet-enabled soapbox. But what do we do once we get there?

Chris Anderson, Curator of TED, reminds us that it's not about the platform; it's about the content:
"Your number one mission as a speaker is to take something that matters deeply to you and rebuild it inside the minds of your listeners. The only thing that truly matters in public speaking is not confidence, stage presence or smooth talking. It’s having something worth saying."
I love the idea that our words can "rebuild" an idea in our listeners' minds. The image is specific, visual, and powerful. It's a little intimidating too. And it should be, I think.

Words have consequences—well-crafted and well-delivered speeches may have even more power than written words. They build new structures in our brains, create neural pathways that weren't there before. Will you fill those pathways with corporate jargon and techno-babble? Or with new ways to problem-solve, new insights and ideas to contemplate?

It's not about giving a TED Talk. Wherever you speak, however you communicate: It's about having something to say.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Not Propaganda

I have drunk the Kool-Aid.

Well, not actually. I wouldn't go near that neon chemical stew refreshing, colorful beverage.

But the thing about exercise—I get it now.

I thought it was just about sweat and muscles and bragging rights. I hate sweat and I'm not big on bragging. Muscles, yeah, I like looking at them; not so wild about making them.

So when I heard stuff like "People who exercise regularly are more productive" or "People who exercise regularly are happier"—I laughed it off as "great marketing," the kissin' cousin of propaganda.


It's true. 


It's all, 100%, absolutely true.

I have exercised at least six days a week since the beginning of April—minimum half an hour on the stationary bike in the morning with an occasional 15-minute burst later in the day—and I am much more productive than I used to be. Also—yes—happier.

I've just gone two days with no exercise and I found myself really looking forward to getting back to it this morning. And not just because it let me reconnect with my workout buddy, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

I'll be honest: this is not a controlled experiment. Other factors may also contribute to my happiness (buying trousers two sizes smaller than my last purchase; the fleeting return of Spring to New England; the Mets' starting rotation). But in general, I find I am happier on the days I exercise than on the days I don't.

Maybe most of you have figured this out already, but those of you who haven't can consider this a Public Service Announcement:
Exercise. Be happy.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Stand & Deliver

My feet hurt—but I've been incredibly productive. It's a trade-off I'm willing to make.

I've been reading a lot about standing desks lately. Even saw one article about a desk-and-chair arrangement that lets you work while lying down. A little crazy, that one. But it got me thinking about the health benefits of standing more. So I've been testing the notion.

Fortunately, I have a niche in my office that's the perfect height for my laptop. It's not a permanent solution—I have to angle the machine, so I can't look at it straight on—but it's good enough for a test. I've also been using  FocusBooster. I set it for 45 minutes of work and 15 minutes of downtime. It helps me to set a timer. When I'm really engaged with what I'm doing, it reminds me to take the occasional break. And it keeps me honest on those rare occasions when I'm kind of, well, you know...bored, and what seems like an hour or two of work has actually only been ten minutes.

But I find nothing focuses my mind like standing on my feet. When I worked sitting down, I never thought twice about taking a quick break to check my email or troll the web. But standing, I have a purpose: I am working. If I want to sit down—well, that's what breaks are for. Even though my work often requires me to research things on the web, I'm able to stay on task. Amazing.

So I'm gearing up to make the change permanent. I've ordered an anti-fatigue mat and I'll be looking for a laptop stand I can raise and lower, so I can move out of my niche and back to my desk. I won't be retiring my awesome chair any time soon, though. I figure I'll use it when I need to spend time thinking...or, yes, daydreaming. I'm a creative person, that's part of my process. And when those intense projects roll around—like the one last summer that had me working 90 hours in seven days—you can bet I'll be sitting down more often than not.

But standing has given me a new perspective on my work, and I kind of like it.

Saturday, May 14, 2016


When you think of James Bond, what comes to mind? Buildings blowing up, cars flying through village markets, bad guys brandishing automatic weapons. And in the quieter moments, bespoke tuxedos; luxury automobiles; beautiful, objectified women.

James Bond or Jason Bourne, if you prefer; Hollywood has certainly given us many of their ilk to choose from—they do things. We call them "action heroes," after all, not "being heroes."

It's so easy for us to get stuck in be:
"I want to be a writer."
Yes, well, writers don't have a lot in common with action heroes, other than creating them. How can we turn this statement into an action?
  • "I want to type furiously." 
  • "I want to endlessly contemplate a blank computer screen." 
  • "I want to spend so long hunched over my laptop in a coffee shop that the smell of roasting coffee becomes permanently embedded in my nostrils."
Whenever you notice yourself writing the verb "be," stop. What do you really mean? Get specific. See the sights, smell the smells, feel the emotions. That's what you want to write about—not about being but about doing.

(If you'd like to be better-armed in the fight against passive verbs, I'd be happy to send you a lesson I put together.)

Friday, May 13, 2016

Change-Making & Writing: Seth Speaks (on The Tim Ferriss Show), 3 of 3

"There's nothing wrong with being a wandering generality instead of a meaningful specific. But don't expect to make the change you seek to make if that's what you do."—Seth Godin
How easy is it to fall into "wandering generality" mode? Say yes to something that's not your core mission, and you're lost. In his conversation with Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin notes that "most people play the cards they got instead of moving to a different table with different cards." (25:00) We all have the power to move to a different table, change the game, but so few of us do.

Godin identifies two types of entrepreneurs: Those who get up in the morning and ask "whose needs am I satisfying today?" and those who focus on changing people. The businesses that change people are the ones that get remembered. (46:00). His advice to job-seekers: Ask "Is there an entity that won't be able to live with out you?" and if the answer is no, start your own. "If you wait for someone to pick you, you will be consistently undervalued. (1:37:00)

Tim Ferriss asks about his writing process, Godin responds with the story of Stephen King's pencil. (35:17). It's one of those meaningless distractions we create for ourselves—thinking if I knew the equipment Stephen King used, I could write as well as he does. Godin points out that "ritual is a way to hide" and the only way to become a better writer is to "write poorly. Write until it's not bad anymore." (37:00) Godin calls blogging daily "one of my top five career decisions" because "it's a practice that leaves a trail. (31:00). In fact, he thinks everyone should blog daily. (1:01:00)

The podcast wraps up with Godin's advice in an imaginary commencement speech: "You are more powerful than you think you are. Act accordingly." (1:54:20) I love that quotation so much, I created a poster of it for my office. Happy to share it with you, just click here.

And don't miss part 1 on Failing and Creating and part 2 on Not Writing.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Not Writing: Seth Speaks (on The Tim Ferriss Show), 2 of 3

"'Busy' is a trap."—Seth Godin
In his conversation with Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin notes that we can't let "busy" run our lives. Especially when it comes to interacting with our kids and giving them the kind of educational experiences they're not likely to get in school. Public schools these days are so focused on having kids memorize facts so they can regurgitate them on the tests that kids don't get a lot of experience with problem-solving. And that, of course, is the skill they'll need most as adults. Godin says parents should tell their children "I don't care how you did on your vocabulary test. I care that you have something to say." (1:36:00)

Godin also addresses the "busy" trap indirectly, by discussing his own non-work activities in great detail. He works constantly, blogs daily, probably has set in motion more creative projects than ten people—but he also makes time to create while not writing. If you ever want to know how to make honey-oatmeal vodka or artisanal chocolate, this is the podcast for you.

Godin collects cookbooks—and uses them, too. His reason for doing this really resonated with me. Especially when you're working on a long, complex task, he says, "it's satisfying to have a project with a definite ending." (15:00-ish) You cook. You eat. You have fed your soul as well as your family.

Tomorrow: Change-Making and Writing. (Don't miss yesterday's post on Failing and Creating.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Failing & Creating: Seth Speaks (on The Tim Ferriss Show) 1 of 3

I spend a lot of time driving these days, which means I'm constantly on the lookout for great new podcasts to listen to. The Tim Ferriss Show has quickly made it to the top of my list, and at the top of that "top of the list" is his interview with Seth Godin.

There's so much in this marathon conversation that before I'd even finished listening, I knew I'd have to listen again. And take notes.

The interview bounced around from topic to topic and circled back several times. I organized these notes into the three categories that resonated most with me: Failing and Creating, Not Writing, and Change-Making and Writing. Have a listen for yourself, though, and you'll probably find five other topics I could have included in these notes.

Failing and Creating
"My job is to do something that might not work." —Seth Godin
Godin doesn't present this statement as an elevator speech (29:10), but I can't wait to try it out in that context. He says he's prouder of his failures than his successes, because at least they demonstrated that he tried. His goal isn't to get good ideas; it's to get bad ones. Because once you get those, some good ideas will turn up in their midst. (37:00-ish)

When you're creating something entirely new, there's no benchmark; you can't quantify the thing you're doing. But these are the most important things to try: "Our soul is filled by the things that have never been done." (59:00)

And of course it's scary. People always feel fear, and that fear never goes away (50:00). But he offers good news from a Buddhist philosopher: "We are falling with nothing to hold onto and nothing to slow us down. The good news is, there's no ground to land on." (1:20:00-ish)

"Clear the decks so all that's left is you and the muse—you and the fear, you and the change you want to make in the world." (59:00)

Check back tomorrow for "Not Writing."

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Mother's words of...wisdom?

My mother told me many things as I was growing up. She must have; we were together for over 30 years. But I can really only remember one thing. One piece of advice—terrible advice, I think you'll agree—that has stuck with me through the decades.

Curious yet?

When I was in ninth grade, my mother told me:
"If a boy asks you out but you don't think he's cute, you should go out with him anyway. Because you never know—he might have a cute friend."
Terrible, right? It basically translates as, "Use whoever you need to so you can get what you want." My mother, the Machiavelli of North Jersey.

I am pleased to say I never used that advice in the world of dating. But I have found it helpful in other situations—mostly when my lizard brain starts shouting that an opportunity I've just been offered is beyond my abilities. I reframe her advice and it keeps me saying yes. I don't think I've ever regretted it.

I've been thinking about dear old Mom because I turned down a client yesterday. The client was looking for something specific, something I've done for other people in the past as a favor. When someone I respect put my name forward for the gig I said, "Thanks, but it's not in my core business." And then I thought, Hey, look at me, respecting my time and not falling into the "yes" trap! I was so proud of myself. For about 45 seconds.

Then I heard my mother's voice telling me I'd just made a mistake. Yes, this client needed something tangential today, but who knows what she'll need tomorrow? (She might have a cute friend.) And after I did the tangential thing, I'd be first in line for any more appropriate writing assignments that popped up. (The cute friend might like me!)

It's the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't dance we've all done a million times. This time, I'm reframing it: "Blessed that I didn't."

I'm saving myself for the right client. And that's a philosophy my mother would have approved of.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Why am I not a stand-up comic?

I'm a big fan of humor. I always look for opportunities to work it into the pieces I write for my business clients. I learned the power of humor at an early age, from my father.

"When you're writing a letter to complain about something, always make it funny," he said. My father was an insurance claims adjuster, so he definitely received his fair share of angry letters. Humor was key, he said, using the Mad Men pronouns of the time, "Because when you make someone laugh, he'll pass your letter around the office. Everyone will read it and they'll all want to help you."

I've often wondered why that advice didn't turn me into a stand-up comedian instead of a business writer. Decades passed before I realized that of course it's business advice. Because it's not about simply amusing people. It's about making them remember you. It's about inciting them to take action.

And that’s the key to every good piece of business writing, probably since the invention of papyrus. Whether it’s a team report delivered to a dozen people or an op-ed in a publication that reaches millions, you want to engage your readers or listeners so much that they can’t help but take action.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Funny/Not Funny

Whatever your political leanings, I think it's safe to say that this year's campaign is bringing us humor where we don't expect it and some truly un-funny moments when we're primed to laugh.

When the people who want to be president start sounding more like insult comics, can we trust them to govern the nation or will they simply begin a four-year term as Roastmaster-in-Chief?

I can't help but compare this year's crop of political laugh lines to the most famous one to emerge from the 1988 contest—when George H.W. Bush wanted to upgrade from the Vice Presidency. (Spoiler alert: he did.) At the Democratic convention that summer, Texas Governor Ann Richards combined two charges against Bush—that he was elitist and a poor communicator—into one memorable zinger. (Watch it here.)

That, my friends, is great political comedy. While the line might be perfectly at home at a Roast (that is, essentially, one function political conventions serve), it also gets the listener to think about, and laugh about, serious qualities that matter in a president. We want our presidents to understand how the "little people" live. And we want them to be able to communicate in meaningful ways.

When you're crafting a joke, especially in the business world, look at it from every angle. Make sure it's substantive as well as funny. Shows the author or speaker in a good light, and is funny. And if it's for a speech, rehearse the speaker to make sure the funny shines through.

I'll talk more about humor and business in my next post.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Occasional Flashes of Brilliance

I've been in business for myself a long time. And maybe two or three times a year, a thought crosses my mind: "I really should start a newsletter."

Yep, I agree with myself, I really should.

And then I don't.

Today I finally realized why: I don't want to.

And why would I? "Newsletters" are boring; I am (mostly, I hope) not. I rarely read the newsletters that do make it into my in-box. It feels like a chore, and the last thing any of us need is another chore.

But I do have value I can add for people who want to know more about the creative process or improve their own writing. Ideas, tips, a good article or interesting blog post. So I will be sending out "Occasional Flashes of Brilliance." If you'd like to receive them, fill out the sign-up form on the left.

And if you have something in particular you'd like me to talk about, let me know.

Let's be occasionally brilliant together.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Bad taste

An agent I sometimes work with just sent around a notice to his list about a guy looking for someone to ghostwrite his memoir. "This is an incredible opportunity," the agent assures us, "for a writer enthusiastic about the subject matter."

I am not that writer. And I'm having a bit of trouble processing the idea that my agent is that agent. "The subject matter," you see, is organized crime—one particular subset of it. So that "competitive compensation" the memoirist promises? We're safe to assume he didn't get it by selling Bibles to old ladies.

My agent writes, "We expect a huge response from this listing." Of course they do. Gangster books beget gangster movies, TV shows, royalty checks. And let's not forget the bragging rights. You could dine out for the rest of your life on "the time the gangster told me..." But as the writer who sets that chain in motion, how can you separate the stories you're telling from the real people whose lives were ruined (or at least changed, not for the better) by the colorful old man paying your fee?

Yes, it's business. "Just" business. The book will be written, the money's going to go somewhere, so why not be the person doing the writing, or the agent taking in the commission? It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth, that's all.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Of baseball and business (diversity edition)

Baseball Hall-of-Famer Monte Irvin just died. Never heard of him? He not only helped the New York Giants get to two World Series, he also mentored one of their up-and-coming players, an outfielder you may have heard of named Willie Mays. But Mr. Irvin played for nearly a dozen years before joining the Giants. Before that, he had been relegated to the "Negro Leagues."

A couple of decades ago, I had a client named Irvin. He happened to be an African American and I knew he'd been raised in the same town as Monte Irvin, so I asked if they were related. Yes, indeed—he was surprised I recognized the name, but I'm a baseball fan. So the elder Mr. Irvin made a guest appearance in a speech I wrote for his nephew. Here's an excerpt; you can read more of it on my website: 
Cultures change slowly. Let me remind you that nearly 50 years after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, there's still not a single African American running a baseball team. And African American executives have been in the financial industry a lot shorter time than that.

My uncle was a major league baseball player—he played in the old Negro Leagues and later for the New York Giants. He could tell you that lots of African American players got hit by pitches—“accidentally,” of course—after the leagues were integrated. But it happened a lot less when a team had an African American pitcher on the mound.

It works the same way in the business world. The progress we make against racism in the workplace has a direct relationship to the positions that African Americans play on the team. As more African Americans take leadership positions and sit on Boards of Directors, more companies will stop throwing pitches at their African American employees.
Yes, it's an old speech: the corporate world doesn't throw pitches at its diverse employees anymore, not so blatantly. And it recognizes many forms of diversity, including LGBT people. But when it comes to leadership roles, are diverse professional relegated to the "farm team" longer than the majority folks in the pipeline? For some organizations, in some industries, the answer may still be yes.

Major League Baseball signed Mr. Irvin at the ripe old age of 30; the man considered perhaps the greatest pitcher in the Negro Leagues, Satchel Paige, was 42 when he joined the majors. Paige pitched for nearly a dozen more years, but his best games were behind him. So much talent, consigned to relative obscurity. And how many more potential baseball stars aged out of the game before the Major Leagues opened their doors to players of color?

There's a lesson there, and not just for baseball fans. Talent deserves to shine. And it's not an unlimited resource—businesses can't afford to waste the talents of their people, no matter who they are. We've made progress since I wrote that speech. But I can't help wondering how many Monte Irvins and Satchel Paiges the business world has lost: how many talented women and people of color never got the opportunities they deserved, the opportunities to shine—and to lead.