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.

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.

What’s the difference between a speech and a salad bar?

I’m a big fan of Dorie Clark’s. I’ve worked with her, I’ve recommended her to clients. A more brilliant marketing and business strategist you could not find. And she gives a good speech, which may explain why she gives so many of them.

But…

I’ve got to disagree with her recent Harvard Business Review piece, “How to Give the Same Talk to Different Audiences.”

She advises speakers:

…it can be helpful to envision the sections of your speech as “modules” that you can shift and reshuffle as needed.

That advice needs to come with a warning label. Because you can’t just rearrange a speech, not without making other adjustments.

You can’t order a speech à la carte

A great speech hangs together from beginning to end – like a tasting menu at a three-star Michelin restaurant. Ask for the asparagus after dessert and you ruin the flow of the meal.

I’m not saying you can’t rearrange the elements of your speech. But if it’s a well-constructed speech, A transitions to B, which builds to C.

In other words, you’re telling a story—that’s what people will remember from your speech, the story you tell. And of course that story needs to contain these “modules” of ideas you want to convey. And you can’t just reshuffle parts of a story like it’s a deck of cards.

Avoid the word-salad bar

I once wrote for an executive – and seriously, once was more than enough for me – who treated his speeches like a salad bar. He wasn’t looking for a speech so much as a mise en place, the chopped-up veggies and other ingredients a chef has handy before the restaurant opens for the day so she has everything she needs to assemble a dish.

This executive expected the “writer” to present him not with a well thought-out speech, not with a story that built to a crescendo of anticipation, with the audience hanging on his every word.

a speech is not a saladNope, this executive wanted four buckets of words: one with options for his opening, one containing several stories he enjoyed telling, a third with assorted facts, and a final bucket with an array of inspirational quotes for the closing.

That’s not a speech; it’s a word-salad bar. When he stepped onstage to deliver his remarks, he would choose one piece from each bucket—whichever piece struck his fancy.

Now, I’m sure that’s not the kind of modular construction Dorie had in mind when she wrote the HBR piece. Dorie is a fine writer. When she moves chunks of a speech around, I’m sure she ties them together thematically; I’m sure she’s careful to make sure she’s still telling a coherent story.

But I worry that her readers might not understand the importance of the connective tissue that holds a speech together.


Want to improve your writing? Register for my 5×15 Writing Challenge. Write for 15 minutes a day between June 4th and 8th and I’ll donate $15 to Room to Read, a global literacy nonprofit.

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.