Communicating in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic is not making lemonade out of lemons. It’s more like making lemonade out of lemons that have been left in the back of someone’s pickup truck. In 90-degree heat. For three months.
If you’re not struggling with a loved one alone in the ICU, or the unexpected loss of your income, or four-year-old twins suddenly cut off from the outside world—then yes, you might be able to see a “bright side” in all of this.
But if you are struggling with any of those things—and Lord knows that’s only a partial list—then hearing some company yammer on about the bright side is not going to give you the warm fuzzies. It’s going to make you want to throw something. Preferably straight at the CEO’s head.
If that’s the tack you want to take, you’d be better off keeping quiet.
“It’s so dark”
I wrote a post-Covid-19 piece for one of my clients recently. They had a story to tell about some positives that might emerge from the rubble of the world as we know it. But my first paragraph acknowledged the damage that’s been done to people’s lives as well as to the business world.
The client returned the draft with a note: “This opening is so dark. Can’t we delete?”
You don’t have to tell people that the pandemic has happened—and please, please don’t talk about “these unprecedented times.” We know.
But you must acknowledge that people have endured a range of unpleasant things—from mild (disruption of their schedules) to catastrophic (deaths of family members and friends). If you want to speak to them, you must acknowledge that before you can say anything else.
To put it on a more human level: if your spouse’s sibling died suddenly, you wouldn’t come home from work and say, “So, what’s for dinner?” If a coworker’s child was hospitalized, you wouldn’t lead with, “When am I going to see that PowerPoint?”
Of course you wouldn’t (at least I hope you wouldn’t!)—because those would be in-person interactions. Your natural humanity kicks in when you have to look in someone’s eyes.
When you’re writing—whether it’s a company-wide email or a LinkedIn post or an op-ed in your local newspaper—it’s easy to forget that you’re not just writing for “readers.” You’re writing for people.
If times are dark, acknowledge that. And then flip on your verbal flashlight and show them the path out.
When the young man asked the famous investor the best way to increase his net worth, I imagine he expected to hear something about identifying undervalued assets and holding onto them until the tide turned.
“The one easy way to become worth 50 percent more than you are now at least is to hone your communication skills—both written and verbal.”
He’s right—I’ve increased my own net worth far more than 50% since I focused full-time on writing. (How many full-time writers can say that?) That was more than 25 years ago—back when I was lucky enough to work directly with Warren, who told me “You have a terrific ear and you turn straight thinking into straight writing.”
So many of us think the road to success is paved with hard work. Yes, but that’s not all—you also have to be willing to grow. Warren didn’t make his fortune by shouting “Buy! Sell!” into a telephone all day like some cartoon fat-cat. He does the inner work, too—what some might think of as “soft skills.” He analyzes and thinks, he doesn’t just react. I cannot tell you (I literally cannot tell you; I believe in confidentality) the brilliant, counter-intuitive ideas he came up with for positioning (not “spinning”) the business to showcase unexpected truths. You need to be both authentic and comfortable with creativity to come up with stuff like that.
And everyone knows Warren has cornered the market on folksy metaphors. It’s a way of showcasing his personality, but those metaphors also get his ideas past the intellectual barriers of our brains and into our hearts, where they stick. And what good is an idea if no one remembers it? Warren is a true communicator because he’s worked at it, and he’s worked at it because he values it. Do you?
If it’s time to invest in yourself, if you’re ready to find your own unique communication style, shoot me a note and let’s talk.
“Of course I remember you!” the PR executive exclaimed. “You wrote the piece about the microwave.”
It’s true; I did—hundreds of thousands of words and probably a dozen years ago. And, to be clear, it wasn’t about a microwave; it was about the culture of fast-action, fast-answers, and how that related to certain business problems.
I don’t even remember the piece, to tell you the truth. I mean, I remember the ideas; I could reconstruct it for you if I needed to. But it doesn’t matter if I remember it—my reader did. And that’s the whole point of imagery. It makes ideas stick.
Especially when you’re writing about a business issue—or, really, any topic your audience may have heard about before—you need to give them a way to form a new impression. So find a novel way of discussing the subject. A metaphor, an allusion, a pop-culture reference—anything surprising can activate the “what did she say?” response in your readers. And once you’ve got them listening in new ways, they’re ripe to receive your message
No, my friend wasn’t talking about an unexpectedly starch-free dinner. She was talking about a metaphor. Or, I suppose since they were literal potatoes rather than descriptions of potatoes, we should properly call them a symbol.
We had gone, separately, to see the production of Leonard Bernstein’s rarely seen musicalization of the Peter Pan story. At the opening of said production, a group of young people in yellow hazard suits wheeled a metal shopping cart full of potatoes onstage. They then spent several minutes scurrying back and forth, lining the potatoes up at the front edge of the stage. I think this action took place instead of a traditional overture. And if you’re wondering what potatoes have to do with Peter Pan, you are clearly not alone.
One of the primary rules of good directing is if you put something onstage, you have to use it. If the set has a balcony, you can expect someone will appear on it before the final curtain. If there’s a door, it will get slammed. If there’s a row of potatoes…well, Wendy affixed one around her neck (she told Peter it was a kiss) and it later saved her from being killed by an arrow. And Captain Hook’s crew speared them and cooked them like marshmallows over their campfire. That was enough to justify their existence for me.
Oh, and the shopping cart in which the potatoes made their original entrance! We saw that again, put to delightful use when it ferried a mermaid with a lovely voice across the stage at key moments. Well, you wouldn’t expect a mermaid to walk. She sat on top of the cart, waving her fin seductively.
Perhaps you can tell, this Peter Pan was a very fanciful production. Quirky and weird, and for the most part charming.
Use your potatoes—er, metaphors—wisely
But the potatoes.
My friend who didn’t “get” them is no rube. She’s a longtime theater reviewer around these parts; she’s seen it all. But I have to agree with her. The potatoes did seem rather random. Although the director made an effort to incorporate them in the stage business, there’s no real reason the items in question had to be tubers. They could as easily have been stuffed animals, or marshmallows, or pool noodles, or…
You might easily run into the same problem with your writing. Tell stories, use metaphors — by all means! But whatever you use must tie in with the theme of your work.
That’s not to say you need to address it in every paragraph. No faster way to bore a reader.
But if you start the piece with it, find a way to bring it back at the end. That will deliver a very satisfying experience for your reader. Bonus points if you can mention it lightly somewhere in the middle, but circling back to it at the end will tie up your writing in a neat little bow.
Oh, and this may go without saying, but don’t use potatoes. I mean, you can if they tie into your subject clearly. But don’t leave your audience scratching their heads—they might spend so much time trying to figure out your metaphor that they completely forget the important ideas you’re delivering.
Or they’ll find themselves craving French fries by the end of your speech.
Discover how to find unique metaphors and use them to make your work unforgettable. Join me on a field trip to the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Details here.
Last 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.
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.
I’ve been editing a video for the last three days, in between an unprecedented number of calls, interviews for pieces one of my clients wants me to write. Still, I managed to piece together the five or so hours I needed to edit the final video in myWriting Unbound program. And when I tried to upload the finished product to the internet, something crashed. You know what’s coming, right? The verb “tried” gives it away:
the entire edit disappeared.
There’s a backup of most of it somewhere, but I can’t look for it right now, okay? I’m too busy wallowing in frustration and exhaustion and probably a handful of other -tions I’m too pissed off to identify.
Sometimes I hate technology.
I don’t, however, hate it nearly as much as the current FCC, which yesterday voted to turn the free and open internet into a playground for the haves and have-nots.
If they truly do succeed in killing net neutrality, it might not matter if I ever get my video edited. Who will be allowed to see it? How much will my clients have to pay to access my website, my courses? How much will I have to pay to access the searching and streaming services that enable me to function as a writer working remotely with clients around the world?
The fight isn’t over. Check Battle for the Net for action steps. Call your Senators and Congressional Representatives, as they have some power here.
Killing Net Neutrality will wipe out small businesses and the growing “gig economy.” And those of us who’ve been able to do business from bases in small towns? We may have to hightail it back to the cities and stop working remotely.
But now it’s Friday night and I have another small town to consider: I’m going to decorate my first gingerbread house.
There’s a lot of divisiveness in the world these days—at least in the United States, but I fear it’s spreading. In the face of so much division, we might do well to focus on what we have in common: our humanity. We are all people.
Is that enough to make a start?
Comedian Rhea Butcher put it this way in a tweet earlier this week:
“If we called everyone people…we’d have to admit that everyone is a person.” This Rhea Butcher person has a point.
Butcher was responding to the NFL player who found it funny “to hear a female talk about routes,” the patterns that football players run. Of course that “female,” Jourdan Rodrigue, is a sports reporter. It’s her job to talk about “routes.” But even if she didn’t talk football for a living, women can converse intelligently about anything we care to learn. And despite what sexist quarterbacks and hotel doormen assume, women can also be sports fans.
But Butcher is making a larger point here, and it’s one I’m surprised I haven’t given much thought to before. It’s about the divisiveness of gender.
“Women do X; men do Y.” Instead, how about:
People do X and Y.
Same set of information, but it produces an even more accurate sentence. Because we don’t make choices based on our gender; we make choices based on our passions and interests. I’m a woman baseball fan, but you can find plenty of men who’ve never watched a game in their lives.
Step into a toy store and it’s not hard to figure out the intended audience for all those pink toys. The world may want us to believe that pink is for girls, but I prefer a bluish palette—and I have some male friends who rock pastel button-downs better than anyone in the world. Yes, even the pink ones.
Why aren’t we all just “people”?
I spoke about this a while back, in a recording I made for the first World Speech Day. Instead of asking, “What’ll you girls be having?” a restaurant server could just as easily ask about “you folks” or “you people.”
So I invite you to spend a week noticing the pronouns you use. When you’re referring to a specific person, by all means use the pronouns that person prefers. But if you don’t need to gender something or someone, then don’t.
Start with your writing—it’s easier to revise and correct. Once you’ve gotten the hang of eliminating unnecessary gender references in print, it’ll be easier to do it when you speak. Eventually—like any new skill we learn—it will just come naturally to you.
Q: What’s with the Rule of Three?
A: Depends. Which one do you mean?
I know at least two Rules of Three. I’ve written about the one in comedy—jokes are funnier when you break a pattern with the third item. But a fellow participant in Seth Godin’s “The Marketing Seminar” just reminded me of a second Rule of Three. (There really ought to be a third one, don’t you think?)
Jared Dees—who’s branded himself as as “The Religion Teacher”—posted a video to remind his community that less is not more. (Watch it here on Facebook.) Leave aside all the religious stuff if you like; his message about great communication technique works as well for an audience of agnostics as it does for catechism teachers—and everyone in between. It’s simple, as it should be:
People retain more when you say less.
So plan your speech or presentation to deliver three ideas. Not four, not five. Just three.
I can hear you wailing: But I have so much to say! I know you do, dear. We all do. The question is, do you want your audience to remember what you have to say? If you do, you can’t stuff their heads full of facts—they need space to integrate all that content.
So Jared says you need to be “crystal clear” about what your three things are. And if you can’t state them all in one sentence, then maybe you’re not as clear about all of this as you’d like to think.
Rule of Three, with details
This is not about dumbing down a presentation; it’s about organizing it. If you’ve got lots of details you need to fill in about each of your three points, then by all means detail away. Let the Rule of Three give you a frame on which to hang those details: a Christmas tree, a coat rack, a hall chair (I don’t know about you but that’s where all my coats end up).
Make it easy for your audience to create their own story, using the details and facts you provide. Once they’ve done that, they’ll remember you—and your ideas.
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?
Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join Elaine for her popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.
Sometimes I think instead of storytelling, maybe we should talk about storyshowing. “Tell” just sends the wrong message. It’s one-sided. I tell the story; you listen. Where’s the fun in that?
Showing is a much more participatory activity. I give you a narrative; you instinctively fit yourself into it, taking the pieces and manipulating them in your mind until you’ve created your own story from them. Once you’ve done that, the story is in your brain, ready to be used and repurposed as needed. And pretty much nothing is going to dislodge it. Stories stick, as the Heath Brothers demonstrate in their book Made to Stick.
And what if I tell you only part of the story? That makes it even stickier, as your brain scrambles to fill the gaps.
Showing activates a whole different sequence than telling. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to an actual neuroscientist. And think about this the next time you’re tempted to tell instead of show: Telling gives you one shot at giving the information to your audience. But showing—storyshowing—elicits a chain reaction in your listeners’ brains—and in their listeners’ as well.
It’s quite a responsibility. But I think you’re up for it.