Many of my clients are hard-driving, Type A people. I like that about them. In fact, I think of myself as Type A–adjacent: I can drive myself as hard as the next person to meet a deadline, but I also know enough about myself to schedule in rest and even relaxation. (Okay, okay, I’m working on it.)
But when you’re speaking to people who don’t know you, you can’t just barrel onto the stage and start spewing words at the audience. Even if they’re good words, outlining great ideas. You have to introduce yourself.
I don’t mean, “Hi, my name is”—someone else will do that before you come onstage. I mean, you have to let your audience know who you are.
Many of my clients think of this as small talk. They eschew small talk in their daily lives, so why should they engage in it when giving a speech?
It’s not small talk in a speech
I finally came up with an analogy that resonated with one of my Type A folks. Perhaps it will resonate with you, too.
When you go to a networking event, you don’t just walk up to people and start giving them your elevator pitch. Do you?
Because you understand that until someone knows/likes/trusts you, they’re not going to care about what you do.
It’s the same thing with speeches.
This is not about meaningless small talk. Whatever you say must relate to the body of the speech you’re about to give. It must add value: by giving people some insight into your personality, how you got to be doing what you’re doing; by expanding people’s notion of what’s possible—in a similar way that the idea you’ll be discussing will expand their notion of [whatever your big idea makes possible].
If your personality is best described, as one of my former clients’ was, as “waking up in the morning ready to bite the ass off a bear”—I’m not saying you have to suddenly become cute and cuddly. That’s not authentic, and people will know that. But use it. Make a little joke about how people think you’re fearsome and tell us about how you teamed with some of your people to create this innovation you’re here to talk about.
You don’t have to turn the audience into Dr. Phil. We don’t care about the loss of your teddy bear when you were three. But we do care about what brought you to the height from which you’re speaking to us. Show us your humanity; let us care about who you are and we’ll care much more about what you’ve done.
NOTE: I wrote this a few weeks ago, but I held off posting it. As a result, I held off posting anything—not good. Read on to find the headdesk worthy update that caused me to finally press Publish.
You know how that word sounds when people sincerely want the answer to that question. They ask “why?” with no guile, no defenses.
I got one of those Whys in response to an assertion I made today. And the sheer lack of comprehension in that “why?” short-circuited my brain. Seriously left me speechless. And if you know me, you know how rarely I find myself speechless.
What did I say to provoke such puzzlement?
The man I was talking to had just given a speech, a fairly good one too. He started by talking about a long-ago sketch on SNL. As an homage to the recently deceased Dr. Seuss, they had someone read Green Eggs and Ham as a serious piece of oratory.
What made the sketch indelible was the guest they asked to do the reading: the Reverend Jesse Jackson. So far so good. But instead of showing the sketch, the speaker acted out parts of it. Yes, complete with a Jesse Jackson impersonation.
Do I need to add that the speaker is white?
I told him that in 2019 it is not appropriate for a white person to impersonate a person of another race. I was prepared for a lot of responses—I’d already collared the conference organizer to express my displeasure. The organizer also seemed flummoxed by my passion, but he reacted more defensively—wondered if perhaps I just didn’t see much comedy, didn’t understand comic impressions.
But the sincere, utter cluelessness of the speaker just floored me.
As we continued our conversation, it seemed that he did have some understanding that what he did was inappropriate. He had always read Green Eggs & Ham to his daughters in his Jackson voice, and they thought he was the best storyteller on the planet. So when the Dr. Seuss centennial came around, they volunteered him to read it at the school.
“All the kids were sitting on the floor,” he said, “and I was about to start when I noticed this little African American girl sitting in front of me. And I thought, ‘Should I do this?’ And I decided not to.”
I told him he’d made the right decision that time. And that perhaps if there were more people of color at this conference he would have thought twice about it. (For the record, I raised the lack of diversity with the conference organizer too.) I also suggested that he didn’t need to impersonate the Reverend to make his point. He said he’d looked for a clip to play but couldn’t find one. Perhaps he’s forgotten how to Google. I found one—admittedly grainy—in about 30 seconds.
I’m not sure my conversations with the organizer and speaker accomplished much, though the speaker promised he’d watch the replay and see what he thought. I hope I opened up at least a tiny crack in their worldviews.
As for me…it showed me I don’t get out in the world nearly enough. I live in my little bubble, working with people who understand that diversity means more than having 50% of the speakers be women. I write about diversity and inclusion for clients who have a sophisticated understanding of the issues, so I guess I’ve assumed that people across the business world understand internalized racism and seek to eradicate it.
Oops, the business world tries not to use the R-word. They call it “unconscious bias.” The bias I encountered today was so unconscious it was practically comatose. Whoo boy. We have a lot of work to do.
And then I was watching TV one night and saw an ad for an actual movie that will be released into theatres shortly. “Shortly” as in soon and also, I hope, as in it will disappear almost as soon as it arrives. (I refuse to link to it; you can find it on your own if you wish.)
It appears to be a comedy…about a white man who becomes famous by imitating a black woman on the radio. Think Tootsie as a voice actor—which at least relieves him of the need to don blackface, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see that plot twist before the credits roll.
What about this mess seems like a good idea?
So much for the impassioned conversations I had with the clueless conference organizer and speaker. Thanks for nothing, Hollywoodland.
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.
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:
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.
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If you haven’t seen the poised, passionate, and extremely purposeful speech that Florida teenager Emma González, a survivor of the latest school shooting, gave last weekend stop reading right now and watch it.
Many people have commented on González’s speech, but I wanted to share one tweet in particular with you. It comes from Christopher Henry, a speechwriter from Canada. He wrote:
“You can’t fake authenticity in speeches. This is as authentic as it gets.”
I agree with him 100%. Anyone with a heart who watches the video can see that her tears and anger are genuine, as is her passion to change whatever needs to be changed so that no other school needs to endure what hers has.
Authenticity and preparedness
But notice something about this authenticity, please: She has written her speech in advance. She says it’s her “AP Gov notes,” but you can see by how often she lowers her eyes that she’s reading from those handwritten pages.
I run into so many speakers who equate “authenticity” with ad-libbing. “Just give me some talking points,” they say. “I’ll figure out the exact words when I get onstage.” If you’re one of those speakers, can you speak as eloquently as this without notes? By the end of the speech, I feel like González’s audience is ready to follow her wherever she wants to lead them. Do you get that kind of reaction from your off-the-cuff remarks?
I would also bet good money that González rehearsed her speech. Probably more than once. Pay attention to how she modulates her emotions. How she pauses for applause and cheers. How she intensifies the pace and volume when she wants to rouse the crowd. You don’t get that by shuffling through pages of your speech in the back of a town car on your way to the venue. You need to speak your text out loud. Preferably standing up.
“Ah, but if I rehearse,” I’ve heard clients say, “I won’t sound authentic.” No—you’ll sound like you haven’t read through your text. Isn’t that worse? Rehearse your prepared remarks until they don’t sound wooden. Until you can say the words and mean them.
Emma González shows us it’s possible to be both prepared and authentic. To rehearse and to bring genuine emotion to the podium. As Christopher Henry noted in his tweet, “This is what a leader looks like.”
As proud as I am of this young woman who spoke with such clarity and grace, I wish circumstances had not brought her into the spotlight.
The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High are now, sadly, authorities on the real consequences of our inane gun laws. They have a platform and they’re leveraging it, honoring their fallen friends and teachers by trying to shame our lawmakers into changing the laws. I half-believe they might succeed. In fact, when I hear Emma González’s speech, it’s hard to imagine anything can stop them.
Like most things in life, the truth of FDR’s famous quote turns out to be not quite as attractive as the words burned into our brains by decades of misquoting: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Ah…I wish this post were about President Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. But it’s not. It’s about me. Because I’m always telling you how important authenticity and transparency are, I have to be authentic and transparent with you now.
Fear is quite the shape-shifter. You beat it back in one form and it comes back in another; you learn to use one set of tools against it and it learns to work around those tools. Or worse, to use them against you.
I once had such a strong fight-or-flight reaction that the only way I could stay put (and I needed to stay put) was to imagine that my feet were encased in a bucket of cement.
I stayed put. And I got the job, too. Needless to say, that wouldn’t have happened if I’d let Fear win that round.
So I’ve adapted to some of the tactics Fear uses to stop me from creating, but I can still find myself reduced to tears by fear of doing something new.
Do I keep doing new things? You betcha.
And so should you.
My most recent fear—a fear that reduced me to tears only a few days ago—was, at bottom, fear of not doing something well. Of getting a C on the great pop quiz of life.
Of course, I’m not going to be perfect all the time. Or maybe even ever. And especially not the first time I do something.
So when Fear perches on the corner of your desk, looks deeply into your eyes and suggests that you Stop—take a deep breath and tell Fear to take a hike. Keep your fingers hovering over the keyboard, pressing down one by one. Make words appear where there were no words before.
Because you’re not alone. Ever. Anyone who’s ever created has been there. And have you read a book lately? A magazine article or blog post? Words on a screen or words on paper—those are proof. Proof that we can beat Fear Itself. And be imperfect. And go through the cycle again.
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I met Anaik Alcasas through The Marketing Seminar, Seth Godin’s new vehicle for spreading his insights and provoking new ones. She describes her business as providing “brand strategies for remarkables.” Follow her juicy #100booksinayear journey on Instagram @anaik_ed.
Eavesdropping to “wow” your reader
by Anaik Alcasas
How in the world can this writer be connecting directly with me—my pain points, core desires, need for affirmation and inspiration, insight and encouragement?
These are the kinds of things you would have heard four years ago if you were eavesdropping on my inner dialogue in the bookshop down the road.
Three years of in-depth research later, using a unique color-coding approach, have revealed several recurring themes in the most engaging motivational and prescriptive non-fiction. In brief, the most engaging writers seem to connect consistently with their readers—or so the research has shown—by touching on elements of audacity, credibility, storification, vulnerability, affirmation, illumination, generosity and inclusion, among others.
So let’s take that step by step, testing this theory, eavesdropping on the inner dialogue of your reader—that reader you’re writing for and to. We’ll italicize these thoughts, to remind us that this is potentially the inner dialogue of that reader:
If you’re saying what everyone else is saying, just with a few minor adjustments, I’m not interested. Challenging the status quo? Tell me more. Disrupting some big traditional gatekeepers with your proposition? Tell me more. Challenging the oppressive troll under the bridge (whatever that may be) who scares people away from crossing over into more freedom, more opportunity, more fruitfulness, more solutions, more vital growth, greater resources to make a positive dent in the universe? Yep, talk to me.
While you’re articulating your audacious proposition, don’t forget to articulate the opposition (my pain points) and the promised transformation (why I should keep reading). And feel free to cycle through those things all throughout our time together – proposition, opposition, promised transformation.
You’re not just stringing together nice-sounding words that you think will “sell” people (we’ve all tasted the cream-puff positive-psychology bull-o). Your credibility involves having done the hard yards for yourself, demonstrating you’ve put in the years, garnered real-world experience, done the reading and the research. Show me your roots and show me your foundation.
Oh, and while you’re at it, make sure you answer my unspoken questions “Why you? Why this? Why now?”
I’m wired to read stories, so package your knowledge and wisdom into stories, anecdotes, metaphors and analogies. This is the great antidote to cut-and-dry advice. If I wanted the preachments I’d go talk to my outlaws or that know-it-all neighbour—you know the one—always ready to dole out insular “advice” with an overtone of judgmentalism and a side of “you should.”
Storify your wisdom and I’ll lap it up and ask for more.
If you haven’t fallen far and hard, suffered loss, run head first into severe obstacles that banged you up–if you’re too perfect and you’re hiding the real parts of your journey in the hopes I’ll trust your “perfect” image more than the next guy who’s sharing about his stomach-lurching lows and dizzying highs, think again.
I, your reader, am a deeply flawed human being with a business that might fall into dire straits without some actionable solutions, and I need to know that your teaching works for deeply flawed human beings and flailing businesses.
My favorite word after my personal name is “you” (copywriters know this), so what’s the “you-quotient” of what you’re trying to teach me?
I know, I know, it’s hard work to distill your training, wisdom, knowledge, and solutions into insanely useful content. But I don’t really care about what you’re saying unless you can bring it back to me through your affirmations and applications. Bring it back to those pain points you already identified. Empathize with my reader’s doubt and answer it directly, point by point.
You’ve presented your data, stories, case studies, examples, and affirmed to me that these are written for me, right now, and can move me forward into the promised transformation I long for.
Keep on going! Your illumination provides context so you’re not just giving me a data dump, but you’re stringing it all together, giving it relevance and meaning for those pain points we talked about, and helping me to get excited.
These are the “aha moments” in your content, the tweetables. If you’d said them before the credibility and storification and all the rest, they would have merely been pontifications–unproven claims. But I’m totally on your side now, and I’m nodding along. Illuminate away.
If I’ve read this far, it means I’ve already found a sense of tribe, a sense of belonging, within your content. You’ve already joined the ranks of one of my virtual mentors. Guess what’ll tip it into the realm of lifelong loyalty, something that really wows me, something that makes me get even more engaged and possibly make the deeper changes necessary for genuine progress? Your generosity elements – the checklists, summaries, recaps, bonus downloadables, and insider goodies designed just for those who are most on board … your ideal target audience.
You won me over, I voluntarily enrolled, I made the significant time investment to read your book, or watch your free webinar, or work through your ten-day-email tips course. Are you content with a one-sided conversation or do you want to move this into the realm of two-sided? If so, invite me to join your tribe, to sign up for more generous tips and insights, invite me to join a Facebook group, or to email you with questions.
Inclusion can be done many ways, but this is one of the most significant opportunities, one of the biggest differentiating factors between books and content BIE and AIE (before internet era and after the start of the Internet Era).
What would any of us do if we could—just for one day—read the minds of our ideal target readers? Certainly, we might change the depth with which we attempt to engage, personalize, and empathize with them.
The theory is that, what the most engaging writers have done intuitively—thanks to long-time leadership experience and high emotional-IQ (EQ)—we can learn to do intentionally, by paying attention to and “hearing” those readers we most want to serve with our writing.
So now it’s your turn to let us eavesdrop … which one of those nine elements describes your inner thought processes when you pick up a nonfiction book? And which one would you most like to nail in your next piece of writing?
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One of the great singers of the American musical theatre passed away yesterday. I may be somewhat less than objective about her—I once drove 36 miles in a raging blizzard because I had front-row seats to a one-night-only concert—but I think some of the qualities that made Barbara Cook such a great singer parallel the qualities we need to be great writers.
Teaching master classes at the Juilliard School in recent years, Ms. Cook often waved off her students’ preoccupation with vocal perfection, pushing them instead to get at the pain and joy beneath the notes.
“What is this song about?” she demanded of one bewildered class.
Writers may not always be dealing with the extremes of “pain and joy,” but we must have an emotional connection to what we write. It’s the only way we can hope that our audience will also have an emotional connection to the material. And without an emotional connection, without knowing what your message is about, they’re just listening to a bunch of words. And who cares about that?
Notice also Cook’s insistence that the singers stop obsessing about sounding perfect. Perfection is just a roadblock we create. Because it’s unattainable, we can constantly belittle ourselves when we fall short of it. In her concerts, Cook would sometimes stop in mid-song and start all over again if she sensed something was off—not because she wanted to sing perfectly, but because she wanted the audience know that she was just as human as we are.
Barbara Cook: Words matter, the truth matters
But one thing Barbara Cook pursued rigorously, especially in her career as a cabaret singer: the truth. When she sang a lyric, you knew exactly what it meant. And fortunately for us, later in life she discovered the work of Stephen Sondheim—devilishly hard music with lyrics that demand complete emotional connection. Asked by Broadway.com to name her three favorite songs to sing, she chose two by Sondheim. Sondheim, in turn, told The Washington Post in 2002:
“No one sings theater songs with more feeling for the music or more understanding of the lyrics than Barbara.”
After winning acclaim—and a Tony Award—on Broadway, Cook took a left turn into alcoholism and depression, emerging in the mid-1970s onto the cabaret circuit. This soon led to a recording contract with Columbia Records. And that is how her Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall record entered my collection: I gave blood one day while I was working at CBS and picked the record out of a bin set aside to reward donors. I never suspected it would be the start of a four-decade-long musical crush. But that’s a story for another time.
The New York Times obit again:
Paying less heed to the technical virtuosity that had thrilled audiences in big Broadway theaters, she now emphasized phrasing and styling to project a song’s emotions in smaller, more intimate settings.
The effect was striking. She had made no secret of her personal problems. But character and hard-won experience seemed to suffuse her songs, and it connected with audiences and critics. The reviewers took up a refrain, with phrases like “simple honesty,” “simplicity and directness” and “straightforward and declamatory.”
Obviously I added the emphasis, but this is authenticity. And it works as well when you’re reading a speech as it does when you’re singing a showtune. Connect with honesty—character flaws and all—and your audiences will connect with you.
Her three favorite songs to sing
“He Was Too Good to Me” by Rodgers and Hart (recording released in 1959) — bear with her through the verse; the emotion kicks in with the song proper. And listen to that crystalline soprano. If this song doesn’t have you reaching for the Kleenex, I don’t know what will.
Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”—yes, I’ve overdosed on this song too. But listen to the lyrics—you can hear every one.
The third song Cook mentioned was Sondheim’s “So Many People.” It’s the second half of this arrangement. Although it comes from Cook’s Sondheim album, this is Malcolm Gets singing. I couldn’t find a recording of Cook herself singing it.
Goodnight, dear Barbara Cook
I’ll leave you with Cook in her prime—1957—from her Tony Award-winning role, Marion the Librarian in The Music Man.
I got complimented for my “bravery” yesterday. I took a deep breath and said, “Thank you.”
Of course, that was the last thing I wanted to say. That “thank you” had to bubble up from under a thick layer of denial and deflection. Do you go through the same process when you get a compliment?
I don’t know if there’s a direct correlation between the compliment I got yesterday and the action I took today but I did in fact do something brave today. I asked for a favor. Several favors. Well, one favor from several people. And not just any people; I reached out to some rockstars.
The first rockstar I asked—a very busy person—hit Reply almost immediately, and didn’t just say yes to my request, she actually thanked me. For asking her for a favor:
Go figure. Rockstar #2 wrote:
If you’re keeping score at home, that’s two rockstars and four exclamation points. Ordinarily I’d say that’s much too high a concentration of exclamation points, but—hey—they were excited. That I had asked them a favor.
The bravery in asking for help
Writers have to be brave. But our bravery often consists of just ignoring the negative voices in our heads long enough to put words to paper or bytes on disk and send them out into the world. Again, despite the negative voices—some of which will show up outside our heads once we ship. As the old saying goes, “Everyone’s a critic.”
So I may be brave in some respects, but I still feel like the Cowardly Lion in many others. Not that that’s a bad thing—he’s got some of my favorite lyrics in The Wizard of Oz. But when I step outside my comfort zone, I am rarely disappointed. One of these days maybe I’ll remember that.
Okay, dammit. I’m contacting Rockstar #3.
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Stories may have saved my life. Millions of people’s lives. So if you’ll forgive one more blog about the healthcare debate—well, debate isn’t the right word since there were no hearings. But you know what I’m talking about. The power of story stiffened some Republican backbones. In this case, Senator Lisa Murkowski‘s.
“She just needs to focus on getting her body whole, but she’s got another series (of treatments) to come up and she was saying, I can’t focus on myself … because I’m so worried that something’s going to happen to my health care and I will be labeled with a pre-existing condition and I’m never going to be able to get healthcare again,” Murkowski said. “It’s these types of stories that remind me that, no, the importance of a timeline is not nearly as important as getting this right.”
We don’t have the actual story the cancer patient told to the senator. But look at what Lisa Murkowski retained of it:
I can’t focus on getting well
Afraid of losing my healthcare
Afraid of being labeled with a pre-existing condition
Clearly the senator connected emotionally with the story. She remembered the fear; she empathized with the woman’s need to focus on her recovery.
What if Lisa Murkowski had heard this instead?
What would have happened if the patient had said to the senator instead:
“Senator, I have cancer. Please don’t let them take away my healthcare.”
All we have in the first sentence is fact. A devastating fact—no one takes cancer lightly, not even (I suspect) a Republican. But still, there’s nothing there to connect with. No details. No emotion.
And I’d bet it would produce no action. Not even with the “please” in the request.
And while we’re on the second sentence, calls to action need to be positive. Tell someone what you want them to do, not what you don’t want them to do. So, “Please fight hard for Alaska’s cancer patients.” Or “Please tell the Senate we need coverage for pre-existing conditions.”
But whatever you do, tell a story—a specific, emotional story. Stories like that can change the world.
Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.
Multitasking has a bad reputation these days. As well it should; it’s probably the least efficient way to work. Or to do anything, for that matter. But the right kind of multitasking can change the world.
Take my friend Jan Abernathy. I wrote about her last week. So far we’ve only met in the comments thread of a mutual friend’s Facebook post and in a lively exchange of texts that followed. But I already like her.
I know Jan Abernathy’s multitasking can change the world; indeed, it already has.
You see, Jan works for a small independent school. And like most administrative folks at small independent schools, she wears two hats. In this case, she’s a co-chair of her school’s equity and justice task force. And she also does marketing and communications, which includes editing and publishing the school’s magazine.
It turns out, Jan and I had already met. By email, a few years ago. She remembered my name when our friend introduced us—”But I thought, what are the odds?”
When I sent in my class news for the magazine, it must have stood out. While most graduates write about their children or their career milestones, I wrote about my wedding. To a woman.
I didn’t even think twice about sending the wedding announcement to my high school and college alumnae magazines. But my grammar school….Whenever I see photos of their events it always looks like the Republican convention. (Not the most recent one—the ones before the party lost its collective mind.) You know what I mean: happy, affluent, straight, suburban people sipping Chardonnay.
If they thought the school turned out lesbians, they might spill their wine.
But I sent in the news anyway:
Got married—finally!—in Dec. 2013. My wife, Dane, works at [Fancy University] so I moved to [Fancy University Town] and am enjoying the perq of auditing classes for free. Still writing speeches for the corporate world (see BennettInk.com) and singing (see ElaineStGeorge.com). Just won a Bistro Award for Outstanding Vocalist.
I expected if they ran it at all, they’d try to slip it in as unobtrusively as possible.
When I saw the return email, I figured they were going to ask me to edit it—”for space,” naturally. Instead they said: Tell us more! Where did you get married? And can you send a photo?
I sent in the the details about the church and the priest and the reception. But a photo? The last thing I ever expected.
The photographer was still a couple of months away from giving us his work, so we didn’t have one of those everyone-lines-up-and-smiles-at-the-wedding pictures. I wrote back that I wouldn’t have anything appropriate in time for their deadline.
The response: We’ll wait.
Still, I understand deadlines. So I sent back the only photo we had at that moment: Just the two of us. Very intimate. Very not suburban heterosexual. I was sure they’d never run it.
They not only ran it, they ran it in a call-out box. My lesbian wedding photo could hardly have been more prominent if they’d put it on the cover.
Eventually my amazement faded and I thought nothing more about it until last week, when Jan Abernathy told me she worked for a small independent school in the town where I had attended a small independent school.
And then she said she remembered my wedding.
I told Jan how much I had appreciated her asking for more details, for a photo. She said she was sure some people were shocked to read about the wedding, but those comments never reached her. And the photo: “I was prepared to fight for that picture,” she texted me. I almost cried. No, I’m lying; I did cry.
Intersectionality and multitasking can change the world
There’s a lot of talk these days about “intersectionality”—that no one is ever just one thing. For instance, I am simultaneously white, lesbian, Christian, an entrepreneur. I can’t really tease out the strands of my personality to present only one at a time. You are many things too, in addition to being one of my readers (for which I am grateful).
Jan Abernathy’s work-intersectionality—what I’ve been calling her “multitasking”—is what got my wedding photo published in that grammar school magazine. The school could have put many people in charge of the publication—at one point long ago, my beloved 4th grade teacher edited it—but they gave the job to the person who also works hard on inclusion issues, someone who gives marginalized people a voice within the school community. And when she opened my email, she saw an opportunity to lift up one kind of voice that doesn’t often get heard in that context. Honestly, I’m still amazed that it happened.
I told Jan that when she asked me for my photo, she made me feel normal. I mean, I don’t go around consciously feeling abnormal, but on two or three occasions I’ve had something happen that showed me what “regular” feels like. And it’s always odd to recognize that “regular” is not my usual state.
As it happened, Jan and I had our text conversation while she was en route to a conference for new heads of independent schools and she told my story, our story, to illustrate the impact that inclusion can have. On a person, on a school. On a community.
I loved that school. When I attended, way back in the late 20th century, it was about as diverse as you’d expect a school in an affluent New Jersey suburb to be. Which is to say not very. I’m glad they had the foresight—and the guts—to hire Jan. And to support her efforts to create visibility for the diverse members of the community, even if it does make some Chardonnay glasses tremble.
But this isn’t just a story about Jan Abernathy. It’s about all of us. Because we can’t be bystanders. If we want a diverse, inclusive culture, we can’t just sit back and let the “inclusion officers” handle it.
So I have some questions for you: Whose voice can you lift up today? Whose story can you tell?
“The only reason to give a speech is to change the world.” — John F. Kennedy