Can you be over-prepared?

over-prepared listmakingNo one will ever mistake me for the most organized person in the world. I strive to be prepared, but I doubt I’ll ever make it to “over-prepared.”

Certainly not to the degree of one couple around here. (And yes, “around here” means the cemetery in the midst of which I’m living this month.)

I’ve grown used to seeing gravestones with room for another name or two. Sometimes, for instance, they’ll go ahead and engrave the wife’s name when only the husband has died. I guess they figure it’s a pretty good bet she’ll end up there eventually. On those stones, you’ll see hubby’s name with dates of birth and death and the wife’s name and birth date. That’s preparation.

And then there’s over-preparation. One gravestone here features husband’s and wife’s names and dates of birth. But no second dates.

In the immortal words of Monty Python, they’re

Not Dead Yet.

The plan ahead-stone

Now, I know people pre-plan their funerals. They pre-pay for the services, pick out their burial plot. It takes some of the responsibility off the shoulders of their grieving families. Nice.

I can see picking out a gravestone—voicing your opinions on material, design, font. Surely someone has come up with the wedding registry equivalent for funerals. (If not, a free business idea for you, readers.)

But erecting and engraving your own headstone seems a tad much to me. Are they over-prepared or just overly controlling?

Then again, with some of the gravestones I’ve seen around here, folks might be wise to take things into their own hands…while they still have hands.

I’ve written about graveside decor (soon to be a Martha Stewart magazine, no doubt)—but that’s stuff added to the plot. Some of the more modern stones carry their own decorations. Supposed to be whimsical, I guess.

One features a traditional front—name, dates, etc. But the back of the stone shows  a kitten pawing a ball of yarn on the left corner facing off against…Snoopy as the World War I flying ace on the right corner. The sizes are way off: Kitty looks like Godzilla compared to poor Snoopy. If someone slapped “art” like that on my gravestone, I’d haunt them forever. And report them to the copyright office, too.

Is there a Story Safari™ in this?

Probably. It could be about taking too much control vs. letting things take their course. It could be a about the dangers of giving the wrong people room to exercise their own creativity. It could be about having so many different points of view that none of them makes sense—Godzilla Kitty about to defeat Snoopy’s flying doghouse by rolling a giant ball of yarn into it.

Bonus Story

I saw a pizza stone today.

No, not a stone you put in your oven to make the crust turn crispy. A gravestone with the family name on it: Pizza. It was rectangular, not round; I guess they’re Sicilian.

I can only wonder what travails Mr. & Mrs. P. endured. For instance, imagine this conversation:

“I’d like to order a large pepperoni pie to go.”

“Sure, sir. What’s the name?”

“Pizza.”

“Yes, a pepperoni pizza. What name should I put that under?”

[and…you get the idea]


Whatsamattafayou? You haven’t registered for my Story Safari™ Field Trip to the Getty Center yet? My neighbors here are dying to go—but they can’t. Take advantage of your time aboveground and learn how to spice up your writing as only you can.

Home runs & humor — it’s all in the perspective

Casey Stengel knew humor — and baseball
By R on en.wikipedia – From en.wikipedia; description page is (was) here, Public Domain

Humor or heartache?

“The fans love home runs,” said Casey Stengel, the first manager of the New York Mets. “And we have assembled a pitching staff to please the fans.”

Classic. It’s one of my favorite baseball quotes—I love it so much, I don’t care whether he actually said it.

For those of you who don’t follow baseball closely, Stengel knows that the fans prefer home runs when their team hits them, not when their team’s pitchers give them up. So is this humor or tragedy? It’s all in your perspective.

Even today, more than half a century after Stengel’s time, the Mets remain a team that lives and dies by the home run. More the latter than the former, this season. Once again, the Mets have “assembled a pitching staff to please the fans.”

This almost total reliance on home runs infuriates me. I’d much prefer to see my team advance around the diamond one or two bases at a time. It’s not about one person shining; it’s about the entire team pulling together to succeed.

Humor, the “home run” of writing

You have a brilliant sentence. I mean, so witty and concise it makes Oscar Wilde look like a second-grader. The problem is, it doesn’t quiiiiite fit the rest of your piece.

What do you do?

There’s only one thing to do. Move your “home run” to the Outtakes file. Maybe it’ll make a great tweet someday, but right now it’s derailing your piece.

Now, I’m not saying you can never use humor. But your wit must serve the interest of your reader, first and foremost. That’s true of every word you write, by the way—you must always focus on adding value for the reader.

If your humorous remark fits the theme and advances the story you’re telling, by all means leave it in. But if it only serves to make you look clever…you’ve got to take one of the team. Hit a single instead. Don’t interrupt the flow of your prose, not even for a laugh. Unless you’re writing a standup comedy set, your audience expects—and deserves—something seamless.

Allow your sentences to work together like a great baseball team. The “fans” may cheer less, but your readers will appreciate you more.


I wrote this piece while watching the Home Run Derby, perhaps my favorite event of the festivities surrounding the All-Star Game. Would you like to discover how to find stories in the wild like this and use them in your writing? Join me on a field trip to the Getty Center in LA this August.

Goats 4 Sale—sometimes you need more words

a goat pausing in mid-mealThe other morning I passed one of those signboards with changeable plastic letters. It read:

Goats 4 Sale

Not surprising. There are as many farms around here as there are Dunkin’ Donuts in Boston or Starbucks in New York City. Which is to say, one on every corner and a couple in between.

What stopped me was the fixed part of the sign. Atop the wooden frame that held it in place the business owner had painted the word

Taxidermist

Which made me reconsider just what kind of goats they had “4 Sale.”

How low can you go?

I wrote last week about Stanley, who captured my attention with just one word. But conciseness may not always be the best option.

I have no doubt some would-be goat owners will pass right by the taxidermist’s For Sale sign. They want a goat to milk; not one to dust. I mean, I imagine taxidermied goats need the occasional dusting. The 19th century owl we had as a class mascot through my middle- and high-school years definitely collected his share of airborne detritus. Fun fact: how do you dust a taxidermied owl? With a feather duster, of course.

Anyway, half the people who venture in to buy a goat are bound to be disappointed in the merchandise. And there’s no telling how many potential sales the shop loses to its confusing sign.*

*Okay, it’s possible it’s only confusing to me. I cannot think of a single reason to buy a taxidermied goat. Unless a local high school needs a mascot.)

Are you confusing your audience?

To haul us all back on point: What does this have to do with business writing?

You may be perfectly clear on the benefits of your company’s nifty new program. But you’ve been working on it for six months before it rolled out. You know it backwards and forwards; you’re used to it.

Think about your communications from the point of view of someone coming to it fresh: Have you explained all of the nuances, translated all the jargon? Have you made it as easy as possible for them to figure out exactly what kind of goat you’re trying to sell them? If not, they won’t buy. And that would be baaaaaaaad.

(Sorry.)


Want to learn how to find stories like this in the wild and use them to make your work more unique? Join me in LA on August 22nd for my Story Safari™ Field Trip to the one and only Getty Center.

Melissa—when motherhood could kill

On the older side of the cemetery here, they don’t make you do math. Instead of a born and died date, gravestones list the age of the deceased and the year he or she died. And that’s how I met Melissa, who passed away in 1836:

Aged 22 years, one month, 28 days

I often talk about the power of specificity. Does that specificity hit you in the gut like it did me?

The almost-eroded engraving on Melissa’s white marble obelisk identifies her as “consort of” the man whose taller stone stands to her left. A tiny obelisk between them hints at the cause of Melissa’s death.

Since Melissa’s time, we’ve made great strides in helping mothers survive. In 1917, about 6% of mothers in this country died from complications of childbirth; 90 years later that figure had dropped to 0.12%.

But in the last 25 years, maternal mortality has rocketed back up in the United States, even as it declined in the rest of the world. Indeed, tennis great Serena Williams, who can surely afford the best healthcare available, almost died after giving birth to her daughter. (Apparently doctors treat people of color differently, even if they’re billionaires. Or other doctors. But that’s a subject for another day.)

maternal mortality is highest in US

If our elected officials had any sense of shame, that headline—from a piece jointly reported by NPR and Pro Publica—would have sparked a “war on maternal mortality,” with a Maternal Mortality Czar to hold the stakeholders accountable for winning.

But…crickets.

Or perhaps people in the administration just read the data and thought, “Hey—we’re #1!”

Of course, ending access to safe, legal abortion will only exacerbate the problem. And should the president succeed in adding another justice to the Supreme Court, that’s exactly what will happen.

Women dying in childbirth; women dying as they try to avoid childbirth.

How many more Melissas will die before we pay attention to women’s healthcare needs?

What a freaking waste.


I’ve invited my friends to donate to Planned Parenthood in honor of my upcoming birthday. But don’t do it for me; do it for Melissa.

Authenticity connects (and it doesn’t take much)

How many words does it take before an audience connects with you? It only took one word for me to connect with Stanley today. One word—not even a full sentence. That’s the power of authenticity.

People around here tend to go on at length about themselves, or they’ll opt for platitudes that could apply to anyone: “She will never be forgotten by those whose lives she touched.” “Beloved husband, father, grandfather.” And I’m thinking, What about “son”?

Oh—I should probably mention that when I say “people around here” I mean the folks whose gravestones I read when Fenway and I stroll through the cemetery in our temporary backyard. You can learn a lot from a gravestone. Or not.

“She will never be forgotten by those whose lives she touched” brought out the copyeditor in me. A) it’s a weak construction because the writer used the passive voice, and B) “by those whose lives she touched” seems redundant. I mean, the only people who could remember her would be people she’d met, right?

I’d opt for “We will never forget her.” Or maybe something to explain how she “touched” people’s lives—her volunteer work, or her openness—heck, the famous burritos she brought to every potluck. That would bring her to life much more (pardon the expression). And you’d wouldn’t be reading the same thing on every other gravestone.

Stanley’s authenticity

authenticity
Did Stanley look like this? Civil war general Ambrose Burnside, by Mathew Brady – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cwpb.05368.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain, Link/w/index.php?curid=6498996

So what was it about Stanley’s gravestone that captured my attention? I smiled the minute I read it—not, I imagine, a common reaction in a cemetery—and I kept smiling for the rest of the walk.

Stanley had one of those large stones—maybe even an obelisk; they’re popular with the died-in-the-19th-Century crowd. Lots of room for a lofty paean to his greatness. But under his name and the years of his birth and death, his family had engraved just one word:

“Stankey”

His nickname.

Sounds like a childhood nickname—and old Stankey lived a fairly long life. To me, that says he had a great sense of humor and a healthy appreciation for irreverence, which his loved ones clearly shared. It made me want to know more about him.

Now, I’m not saying you have to reveal embarrassing information about yourself to connect with your audience. If I were Stanley, I wouldn’t want my audience wondering what kind of “stank” my nickname referred to.

But share something relevant about yourself, something to distinguish you from the parade of corporate clones your audience may be used to seeing. Give them a way to connect with you and you give them a way to remember you—and your message. That’s the power of authenticity.

Just ask Stankey.


Join me on a one-day Story Safari™ Field Trip to the Getty Center in LA. Learn how to find stories in everyday life and use them to make your ideas memorable.

Who’s it for? A Story Safari™ from the cemetery

I’m writing this in the midst of a cemetery. Well, in a house in the midst of a cemetery—a quirky and wonderful AirBnB space. And, yes, the neighbors are quiet.

And every time Fenway and I walk through the neighbors’ yard, if you will, we find a new story. So you can expect a fair number of tales from the grave in the next few weeks.

So what’s a Story Safari™ from the cemetery about? You might expect I’ll be writing about the lives these people lived—and there are apparently some famous folks buried here, though I haven’t found them yet. But the more I walk around, the more I think that cemeteries aren’t about the dead people.

The grave sites closest to my building host more recent guests, and the simplicity of their headstones stands in marked contrast to the decorations surrounding them. American flags, of course—some of these graves also have brass military placques, like the ones you’ll find in a military cemetery. But also seasonal decorations. Pinwheels and butterflies and…well, see for yourself:

a decorated gravesite in the local cemetery
I blurred out the names to protect the family’s privacy.

Those look like solar-powered lights on either side of the headstone. So the deceased doesn’t stub a toe on the way to the bathroom?

But I don’t mean to be snarky. We all express our grief differently and we should be free to do so without being judged.

What makes this a Story Safari™?

What I’ve written above is a story.

What alchemy turns it into a Story Safari™?

First, lift it out of its actual context. I mean, unless you work for a funeral home or a headstone carver you probably don’t have a lot of occasion to write about cemeteries.

But what do you write about?

I write about writing, most often business writing. So I ask myself, do I ever come across things in the world of business writing that seem more embellished than they need to be? Things that are more about the person doing the writing than about the people who’ll be reading or hearing it?

Do I? Only about every day. Full disclosure: Sometimes I even do it myself.

The family that puts frogs and tinsel and solar powered lights on grandma and grandpa’s grave—they’re the real audience for all of that frou-frou. They’re doing it for themselves. And if it makes them feel better, that’s what matters.

But when you’re writing for an audience, you have an obligation to write for them. It’s not about you, not if you want to connect with the audience, not if you want them to remember and act on your words.

So what frou-frou do you add to your speech? Where’s your tinsel, your frogs? Do you ever go out of your way to drop a name? Will you take time to tell a story that boosts your ego, even if it has no real connection to the topic? Do you spend too much time talking about you—or your company—instead of focusing on the audience’s needs? Are you onstage to solve a problem for them, to fire them up to action? Or just to collect another venue to add to your speaker’s bio.

Every word you write must add value for your reader or listener. So leave tinsel and the frogs at home—this is not about you. Tell them the story they need to hear, drive them to the action they need to take, and they’ll remember and appreciate you for it.


Interested in learning more about how to find and tell stories? Join my one-day Story Safari™ Field Trip to the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

Pop culture references: they need to make sense

I love pop culture references. Especially in unexpected places, like business speeches or otherwise serious-minded articles.

I’ve written before about my favorite pop culture reference, courtesy of the brilliant Adam Gopnik. He begins this New Yorker piece:

“Falling, yes, I am falling, and she keeps calling me back again,” Paul McCartney sang on June 14, 1965, a memorable high-water mark in musical history, when, on a single day, he recorded that first bluegrass-rock standard, “I’ve Just Seen a Face”; the throat-shredding early-metal model “I’m Down”; and then, in dulcet tones, the most covered song ever written, the ballad “Yesterday”—all within a few hours, with a little help from his friends. Some of us think there hasn’t been as good a musical day since.

It’s a fascinating bit of pop culture history; new to me. And engaging enough that I kept reading the piece even as the very next paragraph revealed that this was not going to be a piece about the Beatles—far from it. (I won’t give it away here.)

So please use a pop culture reference when it makes sense for your topic. That doesn’t mean it has to have an obvious relationship to your subject: Gopnik’s Beatles history does not and that’s part of what makes it so delightful. But it does mean that before you’re done, it has to make sense to the reader.

Pop Culture Beauty Salon

pop culture, kryptonite
Kryptonite: Art by Gary Frank. Fair use,

That’s easier to do when you put words around your pop culture reference—or, better yet, sentences. And if that seems obvious to you, it did not to the proprietor of a beauty salon I passed the other day in Connecticut:

Kryptonnite Beauty Salon

What message were they trying to send?

Women, be so alluring that your man will be powerless before you!

What kind of fun is that? And then I saw further down on the storefront the words “Unisex Salon.” So:

Men, we’ll render you completely useless!

I don’t know about you, but that’s not the message I’d want my hairdo to send.

Story Safari

The salon misspelled the name of the substance, but in double-checking that I discovered that kryptonite takes many forms. Pink kryptonite can even turn you gay (later adjusted to “change your gender” which is not nearly the same thing. But I don’t expect political correctness from an action comic book).

And while it debilitates people from Superman’s planet, Krypton, when we Earthfolk encounter it, it can give us superpowers. It can even supercharge our pets, albeit for only a day. (Don’t tell Fenway.)

Perhaps that’s what the salon owners were thinking. Kryptonite connoisseurs, they expect their idea clients to be similarly conversant with the many uses of the imaginary mineral.

Probably not the best business plan. Unless their ideal client is super-villains, in which case they’ve probably cornered the market.


Join us on a Field Trip to the very appropriately named Getty Center in Los Angeles, August 22nd—we’ll spend the day looking for stories in its gardens, architecture, and art. More information here.

Self-esteem — how much is too much?

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” the new employee at my client’s company told me. “The CEO sings your praises.”

Said CEO was also on the phone. I started to say, “Well, at least half of it is true.” And then I thought‚ why should I say that about myself?

Instead I heard a voice saying this:

“Aww…multiply it all by two.”

Who said that? Was it really me?

Reader, it was.

Fortunately everyone laughed. I did too. Later the CEO said I should multiply by two everything I’d heard about his new employee. So we were even; that felt right.

Toward the end of the call, the CEO tried to sell me on a new project they wanted me to write, a project I’ve already turned down once. “We think you’d do a great job,” he said.

“I know I wou—” A bout of nervous laughter stopped me in mid-word. “Can you tell I’m working on my self-esteem?”

The rusty tap of self-esteem

Have you ever had a rusty water tap in your garden? The handle turned freely last summer, but a winter of disuse has rusted it shut. So you tug and tug at it and you eventually decide the garden can wait another day.

The next time you try, you tug just as hard and the thing spews out water like Niagara Falls. You were treating it like a rusted-shut spigot, but someone loosened it yesterday and didn’t tell you.

As far as I knew, I was the only one with her hands on the spigot of my self-esteem. And it’s been tough to turn for ages. But after more than a year of coaching, something has shifted in me.

It feels marvelous, really freeing. But you don’t need Niagara Falls to water your hydrangeas. So while I’m banishing self-deprecating remarks forever, I’ll only turn on the self-esteem tap maybe once per conversation. I don’t want to over-water my clients.

 

But it’s true: I am spectacular. 😉


Do want to write more confidently? Warning: when you do, you’ll attract more clients. Click here to learn one way I can help.

“Tender age children”: don’t tolerate evil word-smithing

tender age children just like this one are crying in prisons thanks to the American governmentLast night, I turned on MSNBC just in time to hear Chris Hayes ask an interviewee if he’d heard about the whereabouts of the “tender age children.” I’d never heard that phrase before.

An hour later, I saw Rachel Maddow try mightily not to break down on camera while reading (mostly to herself) a breaking news alert that some of the “tender age children” had been located, although they’re still no closer to being freed.

As I watched the usually unflappable Maddow’s distress, I realized what “tender age children” means. It means:

Babies and Toddlers.

Of course, the administration wants to do all it can to avoid implanting in people’s minds the surely indelible image of

Babies and Toddlers

behind yards of chain-link fencing. Honestly, even if we were putting them up in a 5-star hotel with all the ice cream they could eat it would still be an abomination. These

Babies and Toddlers

need to be with their parents. The trauma of forced separation will scar them for life.

But just because the administration has come up with a vague-sounding phrase doesn’t mean any of us have to use it. The news media may have the biggest bullhorn when it comes to spreading the euphemism—but even if you don’t have a cable TV show, be careful of what you say.

Plain-language: more important than ever

I’ve been talking for years, maybe decades, about the importance of speaking and writing in plain language. Not gussying up your work with jargon or $500 words to make yourself sound like you belong. Whether you’re obfuscating to seem more sophisticated or obfuscating to hide your evil, shriveled soul, muddying up the truth is still muddying up the truth.

I don’t believe any of my readers have evil, shriveled souls. So please do not adopt the language of those who do.

Today it’s

Babies and Toddlers;

tomorrow it might be LGBT people. Or non-Christians (though surely if they rounded up those, Jeff Sessions should be first in line). Really any damn group they choose.

Only they won’t say they’re throwing us into camps because we’re gay. They’ll find some other excuse, obfuscate their true intentions with a phrase like “tender age children.”

The first time you hear it, they know you’ll think, “Wha?” The second time you hear it, they expect you’ll think, “Oh, okay.”

It’s not okay. Please don’t perpetuate language that makes it sound like it is.

Babies and Toddlers.
Locked up in cages.

If we as human beings can tolerate that, we can tolerate anything. God help us all.

Goldie-Writer & the Three Fears

I’ve been reading a lot about fears lately. Not intentionally. But the subject keeps coming up, so clearly it wants to be written about. I guess by me.

Fear #1

I wanted to give myself a break and read something funny, so I chose Paula Poundstone’s book The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness. I enjoyed her writing so much, I even stuck around for the Acknowledgments. And there it was, staring back at me from the page: fear.

I don’t know how anyone writes for a living. Every writing session is a deep dive into a sea of self-doubt.

If that’s the kind of fear that keeps you from writing, change the subject. Write about something you don’t care quite so much about. Or if you can’t change the subject, change the style: write it from the perspective of a five-year-old. Write it in poetry—in limericks.

Write something that makes you laugh. How can you doubt yourself when you’re laughing?

I do, however, have personal experience with Poundstone’s next observation:

“Once I get going, it can feel exciting and rewarding, but I often have to lure myself with the promise of Butterfingers or raisin toast as a reward for writing progress. It’s a really hard job and can cause weight gain.”

My toaster gets quite a workout when I’m writing for some clients. I think there’s an inverse relationship between carbs and confidence. The more I have of the former, the more I lack the latter.

I need to work on that.

Fear #2

After the Poundstone book, I turned to a book on writing, one I’ve been looking forward to: Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir.

I hadn’t even finished the first chapter when…

“As with everything I’ve ever written, I start out paralyzed by fear and frustration.”

Many people mistake fears for writers’ block. But you see? Paralysis is just a natural part of the process. Karr continues:

“The tarantula ego – starving to be shored up by praise – tries to scare me away from saying simply whatever small, true things standing in line for me to say.

Ts’ok. That’s why God gave us delete keys.”

I think you can definitely expect a separate blog post about Karr’s use of language. She’s a poet as well as a noted memoirist. And apparently she fights fears as well.

A few pages later, she clarifies: this paralyzing fear isn’t about writing, per se—it’s about how readers will perceive her writing. She gets the Willits, in other words. But not about whether she’s writing well; about whether she’s fairly representing the other people who appear in her life story:

“The thought of misrepresenting someone or burning down his house with shitty recall wakes me up at night. I always tell my students that doubt runs through me every day I work, like the subway’s third rail.”

Okay, let’s cut Paula Poundstone a small break here. After all, her “search for human happiness” is part-memoir. Maybe she’s deep-diving in the same part of the ocean as Mary Karr.

Fear #3

Okay, I don’t really have a third writer to quote here; I just thought “Goldie-Writer & the Three Fears” sounded like a nice title.

I could throw in something from the always inspirational Elizabeth Gilbert, but I’ve written about her work before. If you deal with fear and you haven’t read her book Big Magic, don’t even talk to me.

Well, I have read Big Magic. Several times. But I still get scared. And sometimes I feel paralyzed—not generally about writing. About marketing.

And I’ve heard all the stuff. How it’s just an exchange of information. How you can’t make anyone buy something they don’t want to buy. My latest coach just reminded me it’s just another form of storytelling. And Lord knows I know how to do that.

Doesn’t matter. Every time I run a marketing campaign, I feel like I’m standing on the edge of a very narrow diving board—the highest one they have at the Olympics. Maybe even higher. And I’m diving into a pool the size of a teacup. Is it any wonder I get scared?

Liz Gilbert says to talk to your fear-monster. Mine even has a name: MarProk—Marketing Procrastination. But if I forget to give him an alternate assignment before I start marketing, there he is all up in my face talking about the joys of toast and sleep (sequentially, not together) and how little the world needs whatever I’m selling.

Just right

So here’s a reminder to you—and to me—that Goldilocks did eventually find a bowl of porridge, a chair, and a bed that were Just Right for her.

Damn! I just remembered how the story ends. The three bears return home and scare her off. Hmm. Not the metaphor I was looking for.

Time for a quick rewrite:

Keep going and you will find writing work that sustains and feeds you (porridge rather than Butterfingers).

You will find the support you need to do that writing. And comfort in the work, too (the chair and the bed).

And when the bears show up, don’t try to change their nature. It’s their job to be bears; find a way to peacefully coexist with them. And get on with your job:

Write.