Reading about Writing: “Just the Funny Parts”

The only word-related thing I like better than writing is reading—especially reading about writing.

Nell Scovell has written a brilliant, moving, and inspiring book about the writing she’s done, for TV mostly. Just the Funny Parts also offers some advice about writing that happens to agree with things I tell my writers all the time. So don’t take my word for it—listen to Nell Scovell:

“Writing is not what you start. It’s not even what you finish. It’s what you start, finish, and put out there for the world to see.”

“There’s an old saying that ‘a writer writes.’ but that’s just the start. A writer writes…a lot…and then shares that work with others.”

Or, as Austin Kleon says—right in the title another book you should read if you haven’t already—Show Your Work!

As a writer, Scovell also apparently loves reading about writing. She quotes John Irving: “Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.”

Irving writes novels, but that’s true for us in the nonfiction world as well. “Noticing”—which I call going on Story Safari™—enlivens our writing, takes us beyond the spreadsheet the client handed us and opens up the possibility of metaphor.

The final bit of wisdom I’ll share today comes from Barry Kemp, who was Scovell’s boss when she wrote for the sitcom Coach.

“Writing,” Barry said, “is not an act of creation. It’s an act of choice.”

She means that you choose what your characters do and say. And that’s true. But you also choose to sit there and make words come out of your fingers. You choose to create.

Read Nell Scovell’s book. And then write…write a lot…and push your work out of the nest so people can enjoy it.

First draft – sometimes Hemingway is wrong

Ernest Hemingway famously said, “Everyone’s first draft is sh*t.”

Or perhaps someone else said it and it just sounded so much like Hemingway that the attribution stuck. In any case, it’s mostly true.

Except for when it isn’t. Sometimes a first draft can be brilliant.

The secret to first drafts—well you can find it right in that adjective: they’re first. Which automatically implies that there could well be a second, or third. Or, if you’re like one old client I miss not one bit, a 27th.

If everybody agrees that the first draft can (and likely will) change, then you get to throw all sorts of outlandish ideas into it. Make it the first draft of your dreams.

With new clients, I always send the draft with a note, something like:

I threw some unexpected stuff in here, but if it seems like too much—hey, it’s a first draft.

With older clients, I often skip the caveat. And mostly they’ll play with me. Being bold on the first draft—and the client’s complete buy-in on the idea—won me my Cicero Award for best speech on diversity. You can read the story here.

First draft, second draft

Sometimes, though, even a longstanding client will push back. Not ten minutes ago, I opened an email expecting it to be full of praise for my brilliant, hysterical, and admittedly unconventional approach to a standard business topic.

Oh the client loved it, alright. But they don’t feel they can publish it.

Sucks? Sure.

But I still remember how elated I felt when I finished writing it and hit send. I felt creative; I felt free.

And, you know what? I still do.

Let your creativity loose on the first draft—it may be your only opportunity. And if the client pushes back, well, it’s their work in the end. And they’re paying you to be creative, whether they realize it or not.

If your first draft doesn’t fly, put your fabulous idea in your Outtakes folder and move on. That’s what I’m going to do. I’ll let this sit over the weekend and then rewrite on Monday.

And who knows? Maybe Hemingway will be right about my second draft.

On retreat: lessons from fire and “Fuego”

retreat bonfireThey set a tall bonfire the last night of the retreat I attended this weekend. The wood must have been stacked three feet high Jenga-style, which left a ton of room for airflow. That fire burned. But just after they lit it, a small movement caught their attention. Attention turned to horror as they realized what was going on:

A frog had hopped into the firepit.

Kimmi, one of the retreat leaders, dove in to rescue it—a frantic 90 seconds that must have felt like an hour inside the sun. But she coaxed the creature away from the fire and the frog hopped off with a new name—Fuego—apparently none the worse for the experience.

I can’t help but think that Fuego’s journey mirrors the journey I found myself on this weekend. Spending three days with a dozen women all doing our best to be present and open to one another—that’s a marvelous experience. I highly recommend it to everyone.

Of course it wasn’t all sunshine and s’mores. (The aforementioned Kimmi leaned into the fire once more to toast the marshmallows for my very first s’more. And may I say, Yum!) No, we worked those three days. Each of us spent time contemplating the fire of our own truth. And if things got too hot, we trusted that someone would always be there to keep us safe.

Like Fuego, I willingly joined the experience; like Fuego I emerged unscathed. But not unchanged.

Retreat – it’s not about work

I’ve been in a very work-centric place for the last year or so. And I marketed my Story Safari Retreat from that space: “You’ll learn skills, you’ll do work.”
But that’s not what a retreat is about. You can work at home, after all. One thing you can’t do at home, often, is grow.
The main thing a retreat gives you is the courage to face the fire—whatever that fire represents to you—and a safe space in which to emerge transformed. And so I am transforming my Story Safari program into a program. You’ll learn skills, you’ll do work—you’ll even have some fun. Stay tuned for details on that.
And do look for retreats from me in the future featuring as much space for heart work as head work. Maybe even more. We’ll jump into the fire together (not literally—goodness, I’m an insurance man’s daughter!) and see how we all get transformed.
In the meantime, my friend the talented branding and design expert Veronica Wirth will be using my gorgeous 5-star venue on Cape Cod to lead a retreat in Soulful Branding. I have no doubt you’ll find her work transformative—for yourself and for your business.
She’s given me permission to offer you the program for half price—that’s less than $1K for two and a half days of transformation and some yummy meals as well. I’ll be there; maybe you should be, too.

“The most ordinary circumstances”

It snowed yesterday—April 2nd. At least three inches, enough to leave a thick coating on my car. I am officially sick of winter.

It snowed until early afternoon but when I looked out my window during my 3pm call, every drop of snow had disappeared. In its place, I saw dozens of tiny birds darting around my backyard. I started to think about writing a Story Safari™ piece about disappointment (snow—in April!) and optimism: birds mean spring!

ordinary circumstances
Detail from a photo by Allison Miller – CC BY-SA 3.0 Own work,

Then a hawk swooped past my windows. Magnificent, powerful. And on a mission—a mission I knew would involve having one of those little optimism-inducing birdies over for lunch. No RSVP required.

 

By then I was on another call, a coaching session to help me refine my marketing. I made a note to incorporate more of the courage and freedom of the hawk into my work. And fun—it sure looked like fun, swooping around the sky. Though I would definitely want my clients to have a more mutually beneficial experience than those little birds did.

That hawk had come far closer to my house than it needed to, showing off its wingspan as it turned the corner from one set of windows into another. Perhaps it was doing more than grocery shopping? I’m not sure how much I believe in spirit animals, but I definitely do not believe in coincidences. So I decided to look it up.

Ordinary circumstances

According to WhatIsMySpiritAnimal.com, a hawk “teaches awareness. The universe is trying to send you a message.”

And the blurb in Google added this:

“…you are now on notice that even the most ordinary of circumstances could have deeper meanings.”

If that isn’t the definition of a Story Safari,™ I don’t know what is.

“Even the most ordinary circumstances”—birds on a lawn, something people see every day and attach no significance to—”could have deeper meanings.”

Birds as a harbinger of spring, that’s a nice story anyone can tell. But what if we turned that into a story about complacency, about being ready for the unexpected? That story could fit in well in almost any business context.

And that’s a story no one else will tell—not in quite the same way. Because no one else saw the hawk swoop around the corner of my house. Well, no one but Fenway, who delivered a startled “Woof.”

Learn to see the world through the lens of a Story Safari™ and you’ll always have a unique story to tell. Except if you’re Fenway. She said the same thing about the skunk who visited later that afternoon. Fortunately, the skunk didn’t hear her.

Roses are red, violets are unexpected—a Story Safari™

“Roses are red/Violets are _________”

Of course, you want to say “blue.” If you’re like me, it’s probably one of the first poems you ever memorized. Of course violets are blue.

violetsBut are they really? Aren’t they more—crazy idea here—violet-colored? And roses come in all shades. Some enterprising florists will even dye them green for St. Patrick’s Day.

If you start the poem:

Rose are red,
Violets are violet

People think they know where you’re going with that first line. They might even put their brains on autopilot for the second one. Until that unexpected word wakes them up.

How about this?

Roses are green,
Violets are blue
But are they really?
Try an idea that’s new.

Surprise your readers and you can breathe new life into even the most tired clichés.

That’s part of the idea behind the Story Safari™ technique I share with my writers. It allows you to find fresh ways to talk about your ideas, so audiences hear them in new ways. Your ideas become memorable—you become memorable. And if you don’t want people to remember what you have to say, why are you bothering to write in the first place?


Join me this Saturday, March 17th, for a one-day program designed to help you find and tell stories more memorably. Anchor Your Ideas—five short videos and writing assignments with a writers’ group-style webinar at the end of the day. Register here.

Ethics & Molasses—a Story Safari™

What does ethics have to do with molasses?

Nothing—that’s what I always thought. Until I found the story of the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.

ethics
Boston Post, Public Domain,

Yes, that’s a real thing that happened—back when people stored molasses in giant tanks on the tops of buildings. Tank springs a leak, molasses rushes out—more than 2 million gallons of it—traveling at speeds up to 35 miles an hour. More than 20 people died, along with countless horses. Can you imagine?

I found that story while doing some completely unrelated reading one day. And it just so happened that one of my clients had asked me to find a regional tie for his speech near Boston. A speech about ethics.

What does molasses have to do with ethics? I dug a little deeper into the story and found that people had noticed brown stuff oozing from between the slats of the storage tank. Did the owners investigate? No. But they did take action—they painted the tanks brown to match.

Many people have written or talked about the Molasses Flood. Some of the people in my client’s audience may have even heard of it before. But I doubt they’d ever used it to discuss ethics.

A fresh perspective on ethics

That’s what a Story Safari™ can do for you. Once you learn this technique, you’ll be able to write about any subject—even concepts your audience has read or heard dozens of times before—and bring a fresh perspective to it. A memorable perspective.

Here’s my client’s perspective:

I know this is a fine program you’re participating in, but I have to tell you that I chuckled a little when I saw the title of the program: “Managing Ethics in Organizations.” The word “managing” implies planning and control. And while that certainly is the ideal to which we all aspire, in my experience—and I don’t think I’m alone here—an Ethics Officer’s best-laid plans can be derailed at a moment’s notice.

Let me illustrate that point by offering you a bit of local history. It happened in the early years of the 20th century—and although companies didn’t have Ethics & Compliance officers back then, I think you’ll notice some parallels to the kinds of work we do today.

In January 1919, the North End of Boston was hit by a devastating flood. More than 20 people died and hundreds were injured. The flood caused several buildings to collapse and knocked an elevated train right off its tracks.

You might be thinking, “That’s tragic. But it sounds like standard flood damage.” And you’re right. But this wasn’t a standard flood. It was a flood of molasses.

Now, usually we think of molasses as a slow-moving substance. But when a 2.3 million-gallon holding tank burst that day, it sent the sticky syrup cascading through the city streets at 35 miles an hour. In a wave that some reports said was up to 40 feet high.

Who could imagine that such a thing would happen? It had never happened before (and, thank goodness, it’s never happened since). But it happened once, and that was costly enough.

Could this tragedy have been prevented? The exact cause of the failure was never determined, but it may be that shoddy construction was to blame—the tank apparently leaked from the outset, a fact the company attempted to hide by painting it brown.

It seems to me that the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 is the perfect analogy for our jobs today. Whatever company we work for, whatever industry or profession we work in, we Ethics & Compliance Officers are charged with finding out if there are any leaky tanks in our organizations and fixing them before they cause serious damage.

You might not be writing about ethics, or anything particularly business-related. But chances are, you’re not the first person—or the only person—who has something to say about your idea or issue. Make your words memorable, and get your audiences engaged, by taking them on a Story Safari.™


Join me for a one-day adventure in finding and using stories, this Saturday—March 17th. Register here.

Transformation: when your window wants to become a sail

I’m in the transformation business. One of the things that excites me most about working with writers is seeing the “afters” from their “befores” as they absorb my feedback and hone their craft.

But transformation can be scary stuff. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not the kind of person who’ll volunteer to be scared. And pay good money for it? No thanks.

not a great transformation
[not my window]
During the big storm that swept up the East Coast recently, a large plate-glass window at the back of my house tried to transform itself into a sail.

Scared? Uh, yes, I believe I screamed. Well, “exclaimed.” With growing urgency and volume each time I saw it bow in. Eventually we found some tape to support it. I’ve been through enough hurricanes to know you’re supposed to tape the windows, but this wasn’t supposed to be a hurricane!

After taping the window, we hung a blanket over it for good measure. My friend said it was to prevent the glass from blowing into my house if the window shattered. I think it was more to prevent me from screaming at each new shape the window assumed. She assured me the window was rated to withstand 100 mph winds—and she’s a builder; I figured she should know.

Transformation & Fear

My friend and I reacted differently to the window’s attempts to transform itself into a sail. I went straight to fear; she saw nothing amiss. That’s the thing with transformation. No two people approach it in the same way.

Something that’s routine for me—like writing—may scare the living daylights out of someone else.

Other people can sell ice to Alaskans (a phrase that packed a whole lot more punch before we destroyed the polar ice caps). But even thinking about selling can render me practically comatose with fear.

How do you move through the fear to transformation?

First, if it’s a rational fear—like shards of plate glass flying through your home to decapitate you—Take Appropriate Action. By the way, the local newscast said winds reached 93 mph in the town next door, which totally vindicated my fear. Then again, it wasn’t 100 and the window remained intact, so my builder friend was right too. But I was right-er. (Not that I’m competitive or anything.)

If it’s an irrational fear—if it’s not going to kill you—then by all means Take Appropriate Action. Action is the only thing that can banish fear.

I know, I know. I hate reading that too. I wish there were a pill you could pop, or a website where you could click a button and the thing you’re afraid of magically gets done for you. But really the thing you need to do is…suck it up and do the thing.

How? When you’re paralyzed with fear, how do you take even one step forward?

Elizabeth Gilbert says to have a conversation with your fear. If you haven’t read her book Big Magic yet, do that ASAP.

And I’m going to offer another suggestion based on my recent experience: Hang a blanket over it. Picture your fear on the other side of a big window and just tape up a blanket. Or draw the curtains if you’ve got ’em. And leave your fear standing outside.

If you’re feeling vindictive, you can imagine your fear standing out in the cold. If you’re a kinder person—and I feel certain Liz Gilbert is a kinder person—give it a lawn chair, a strong SPF sunblock, and a gossip magazine to keep itself occupied while you do that scary thing.

Then Take Appropriate Action

Writing isn’t going to kill you—not unless you do it while hanging off a mountain one-handed. And marketing hasn’t killed me yet. I have no doubt that one of these days, I’ll remember that.

Transformation can seem scary. But the more you can ignore the fear and do the thing that scares you, the less power that fear will have over you. At least that’s what they tell me.


Transform yourself into a more powerful storyteller. Join my one-day Anchor Your Ideas challenge, March 17th. (Blanket over the window optional.)

When is a story more than a story?

Can a story ever be more than a story?
That’s what I’ve been exploring with an intrepid group of writers in my “Anchor Your Ideas” challenge this week.
They’ve spent most of the week gathering stories—and they’ve found some good ones. On day 4, I started asking them to use those stories to make a larger point. That can be a challenging pivot to make, but it’s essential.
Learn this skill and it turns you from someone who tells stories into someone whose stories get listened to—someone whose stories get remembered. Someone whose stories drive people to action.

A story that’s more than the sum of its parts

I asked my writers to dig up some interesting stories about a place they live or would like to live, and one of them came up with a new (to me) story about one of my favorite places on earth: the Fenway section of Boston, home of Fenway Park (and namesake of my trusty Canine Assistant).

story
My own Fenway
Apparently during World War II the fine citizens of Boston turned part of the Fenway into a Victory Garden—a garden that’s still tended today.
Now, that’s a fine story on its own—but widen the lens a bit and think about what ELSE it could be about. Cooperation in wartime—if you were writing about a business, you could draw a parallel to teamwork. Or you might go at it from the angle of making the most of scarce resources. That could be a great theme for a blog.
 
Let’s think about the cooperation angle for a minute. How many pieces have you read about “teamwork”? Only about a million, right? But how many have you read that start with a story about a victory garden next to a baseball stadium? That unique angle makes whatever you have to say more memorable. You’re not just lecturing your readers about why they should work together; you’re showing them a story about people who worked together and achieved great things as a result.
 
This is not the easiest pivot to make—from taking a story at face value to seeing a story as a metaphor for something larger. It takes practice. But once my writers learn it, they’ll have a skill they can use the rest of their lives.
If you’d like to discover how to make a story worth far more than the sum of its parts, join me on March 17th. We’ll run through the whole “Anchor Your Ideas” program in one fabulously entertaining day—my own version of March Madness. Register here—it’s free. And the skill you’ll hone is priceless.

“You can’t fake authenticity” — a new leader emerges from tragedy

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

“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.


Make your ideas memorable by embedding them in stories. Discover how in my free six-day writing challenge beginning February 26th.

[this piece originally published on LinkedIn]

Discouraged or encouraged — “This thing’s got to be done”

“What does it matter if I’ve been discouraged or encouraged over the years?” she said, brusquely. “This thing’s got to be done. It’s not a question of how I feel from moment to moment.”

discouraged or encouraged, Marjory Stoneman Douglas pressed on
By Friends of the Everglades – Friends of the Everglades, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The “she” in that quote is none other than Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Sadly, if her name rings a bell it’s likely not because of her career as a journalist or her work to save the Everglades. It’s because a mentally ill teenager used the high school named after her in Parkland, Florida, as a shooting range this week. (I’m sorry; I just can’t bring myself to link to an article about it. The shooter has gotten enough ink.)

Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune actually met and interviewed Stoneman Douglas, and in this article she takes us on a great Story Safari™ to paint a portrait of a formidable lady. Stoneman Douglas died in 1998 (age 108), but she still has a lot to teach us. Schmich writes:

One Florida environmentalist described her to me as “that tiny, slim, perfectly dressed, utterly ferocious grande dame who can make a redneck shake in his boots.”

“When Marjory bites you,” he added, “you bleed.”

May we all develop into such effective advocates.

Don’t be discouraged. Be inspired.

As a writer, I appreciate her story-driven approach to advocacy, summed up in this quote from then-Florida governor Bob Graham:

“She deals in very tangible action, whether environmental, scientific or political,” he said, “but she also understands that there has to be a sense of magic, that people have to be inspired to what is bigger than themselves, longer than their lifetime.”

People need “a sense of magic” to inspire them to action. It’s never just about facts and figures—whether you’re trying to change a state’s environmental policy or a company’s human resources policy. Change requires inspiration. Inspiration requires story.

Schmich positions Stoneman Douglas as an icon for our time:

Arguing for better gun laws — say, making it way harder to get a semiautomatic rifle — may feel like a futile exercise, but when it does, just say to yourself: Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

“Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics,” she’s quoted as once saying, “but never give up.'”

This thing’s got to be done.

Yes it does. Go do it.


Do you have ideas that need to be shared? Discover how in my free 5-day writing adventure, Anchor Your Story.