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.