“I just didn’t get the potatoes” — metaphors that work

“I just didn’t get the potatoes.”

potatoes and metaphorsNo, 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.

“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.

All fall down

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.

Listen up, people! The case for non-gendered language

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' instead of separating everyone by gender we'd have to admit that everyone is a person."

“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.”


It’s not easy to adopt non-gendered language, at least not if you’re used to the old way of speaking. That’s why in Sweden, they begin teaching non-gendered language in preschool. But adults learn plenty of things—when we want to.

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.

What’s with the Rule of Three? — Frequent Questions

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 has his own Rule of Three
Jared Dees, from “Jared Dees Teaches” Facebook page

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.

By the way, Dees practices what he, um, preaches. A quick trip to his blog reveals posts like “3 Lessons I Learned from Reading Real Artists Don’t Starve and Creative Blocks: 3 ways to find great ideas (great suggestions, by the way). Yes, I’ve only listed two blog posts. Another way to play with the Rule of Three is to keep an audience waiting for the third…“How to Be a Writer: 3 Lessons I Learned from Jeff Cavins.” Enjoy.


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.

Anaik Alcasas: Eavesdropping to “wow” your reader

Anaik Alcasas
Anaik Alcasas

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:

Audacity

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.

Credibility

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?”

Storification

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.

Vulnerability

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.

Affirmation

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.

Illumination

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.

Generosity

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.

Inclusion

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.

Ssssh! Don’t tell! — the right way to convey a story

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?

storyShowing 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.

“If only I had the money” — stupid communications decisions

Of all the stupid communications decisions I’ve heard people make, probably the stupidest is

“I’d do it [that ‘communications’ thing] if I had the money.”

As if every time you open your mouth—or one of your staffers sends an email to a client—or you release a newsletter or put up a  job posting—you aren’t already “communicating”?

Seriously, even if no one ever hears your actual voice, even if you hire an ASL interpreter for your board meetings or galas—I’ve got news for you:

You’re communicating.

So let’s revise that sentence, shall we? Because what you’re really saying when you say “I’d do it if I had the money” is:

“I’d do it well if I had the money.”

You’re okay with doing something poorly? Wow. Does your boss know that?

Or maybe what you’re really saying when you say “I’d do it if I had the money” is:

“I’d do it to make an impact if I had the money.”

So you’re okay putting out communications that no one reads or remembers? Again, does your boss know that?

Yes, communications costs money. It also brings in money—whether in the form of clients or, if you’re a nonprofit, donations. Communications can also save you money—wouldn’t you rather communicate clearly and retain your employees than replace them?

Stupid communications decisions make me mad

Sorry if that sounded like a bit of a rant. But stupid communications decisions really fry me. You can tell that because I call them “stupid”—and that’s not a word I use lightly.

Joan Garry does not make stupid communications decisionsNonprofit guru Joan Garry knows exactly what I’m talking about. Because she devotes at least some of her podcast this week to talking about the stupid communications organizations in her field (nonprofits) have made. Her guest, communications consultant Sarah Durham, notes that instead of thinking of communications as a frill, nonprofits should think of it as a utility.

A utility? You mean like electricity? She means exactly like electricity. If you wouldn’t set up shop without a way to power your computer and internet, you shouldn’t try to run your organization without a communications expert. (And if you would set up shop without electricity, well, it doesn’t matter because you’re probably not reading this.)

Durham says it’s not just a matter of money and other resources being in scarce supply. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what communications does and can do for an organization. And, of course, it’s hard to communicate—even if you do have an expert dedicated to the task—if your organization hasn’t developed a strong strategic vision.

For strategic vision, see Joan Garry. She’s one of the best. But if you want help to communicate—well, I bet Sarah Durham can help you there. And so can I.

Do-It-Yourself Communications

You think you can’t afford to have a communications expert on staff. I hope by now you’ve figured out you really can’t afford not to.

But what if you could turn one of your staffers into a crack communications person? What if you invested a little in yourself to learn how to shape your thoughts? To focus on what’s important to your audience?

I’ve got a suite of live, interactive webinars geared specifically to professionals who need to communicate as well as they do whatever they actually got hired to do. The next round of writing classes kicks off in the fall. But if you want to start right away, I’ve got a class in revising coming up in July. And a free webinar this week to get you started thinking about this essential skill.

See you there.

Kleenex — achoo! — a story safari

I’m not going anywhere without a box of Kleenex this week. Spring cold? Bad allergies? Dunno. All I can say for certain is that I had work to do—serious work—and it’s not getting done. The good news is my brain doesn’t feel like it’s packed in cotton anymore. But I’m sleepy…so, so sleepy.

Still, there’s that writing streak to keep alive (day 394 when I’m done writing this on Wednesday). So I thought I’d explore the backstory of my new best friend.

Box of Kleenex
A box of Kleenex, photograph by Evan-Amos – Own work, Public Domain

Kleenex — a great idea, almost ignored

Every successful new product meets an unmet need. Introducing Kleenex in 1924, Kimberly-Clark aimed to give women an easier way to remove cold cream or makeup. Advertising focused on movie stars and Hollywood makeup artists, bringing some glamour to the lowly disposable tissue:

“the new secret of keeping a pretty skin as used by famous movie stars…”

Wikipedia tells us that a researcher at Kimberly-Clark suggested expanding the market by targeting people with colds and allergies. This would double the market size—men get colds, too—but the company rejected the idea.

Still, consumers told the company again and again that they used the product as a disposable handkerchief. Finally, after testing the concept in one market, 1930 Kimberly-Clark positioned Kleenex as a healthy alternative to handkerchiefs:

“Don’t Carry a Cold in Your Pocket”

And Kleenex—which I should mention, for the record, is a registered trademark of Kimberly-Clark Worldwide—was on its way to becoming a $3 billion-plus brand.

Reinventing the wheel, or the tissue

I’m surprised it took Kimberly-Clark six years to market the tissue to cold sufferers. Because it wasn’t a new application. One European who visited Japan in the 17th century—some 400 years before Kleenex—reported:

“They blow their noses in soft silky papers the size of a hand, which they never use twice, so that they throw them on the ground after usage, and they were delighted to see our people around them precipitate themselves to pick them up.”

“Delighted” to see people pick up used tissues? More like amused—laughing at rather than with the strange Europeans. The 17th century Japanese equivalent of SMDH.

How many other innovations have we missed—and perhaps continue to miss—because we’re unwilling to understand and adapt customs from other cultures?

That’s a subject that could spark a fascinating speech or op-ed. Another win for the Story Safari trophy wall.

And now, my Kleenex and I are going back to bed.


Writing is just the first part of the process. Revising—that’s the secret sauce that gives your writing zing. Join my free webinar on revising.

“Anyone can write” — um, no. Just…no.

Anyone can writeYesterday, a client told me a story about a friend of hers at another company. A company reorganizing its communications department by stuffing it full of marketers with no particular communications expertise.

My client said something like, “But can they write?” And her friend replied confidently:

“Oh, anyone can write.”

Reader, I screeched in horror.

Fortunately my client was right there with me. She understands that while anyone can write—most people have the requisite number of fingers to work a keyboard, the opposable thumbs to hold a pen—not everyone should.

“Anyone can write?” Have you read some of the stuff out there?

Some people are born storytellers. They captivate their audiences with memorable messages that stick long after the speech is over, the opinion piece read.

Other people…well, they’re handy to have around when insomnia strikes.

Of course, most of us write every day. Emails, texts, Mother’s Day cards (that’s your Public Service Announcement: it’s tomorrow).

But stringing words together to thank Mom for the meatloaf, or to remind your colleagues about the strategy meeting on Monday—that’s not writing. It’s not going to inspire anyone (well, maybe Mom). It’s not something you need your readers to remember forever; just until the meeting starts.

How many mush-mouthed corporate mission statements have you read? How many reports that say nothing? Or—the opposite sin—that say so much you can’t uncover the real message? Those, my friends, were written by Anyone—the “anyone” who “can write.”

Anyone can learn to write

Now, there’s hope for Anyone—because Anyone can learn to write. But, as with everything, the first step is recognizing you have a problem. In this case, it’s the company’s problem: they don’t understand why good writing matters.

I’ve always said that my favorite clients were smart enough to know good writing when they read it, but too busy to do it themselves. That’s where I come in.

Now that I’ve added webinars to the mix of services I offer, I should tweak that slightly:

My favorite clients are smart enough to know good writing when they read it and savvy enough either to get the support they need to do it themselves or to find a great writer to do it for them.

Okay, that’s a mouthful. I’ll work on it.

Still, I feel sorry for those poor marketers being shoehorned into comms jobs because the boss thinks “anyone can write.”

Anyone—if you’re reading this, call me. I can help.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.