Getting personal — “Exit to my left”

I noticed a strange woman getting personal on Saturday. I was on Seattle’s marvelous light rail system, heading to the airport—cost me all of $3 from downtown to Delta. That’s insane.

getting personal on Seattle's light railNew York City may be the queen of public transportation but you can’t get a subway straight to any of its airports these days, and when you still could—back in the late 20th century—the $5 fare would cost you nearly $14 in 2017 dollars. Plus, the stop where I boarded the light rail, underneath Nordstrom’s flagship store, looked less like a subway station than a hotel ballroom with a train running through it. Swear to God; it even had chandeliers.

But the strange woman. Okay, so she wasn’t talking directly to me, but she was presuming an unwarranted degree of familiarity with all of us. In New York, you’re lucky if you can hear the conductor barking the name of the station: “Christopher Street!” If you’ve got an exceptionally polite conductor, they might add “next” before they order you to “stand clear of the closing doors.” In Seattle, the conductor not only tells you what station you’re approaching, but what side of the train to exit. “SeaTac Airport Station is the next stop. Exit to my left.”

“…to my left.”

That’s what got me: “my left.” Because the nice lady with the impeccable diction doesn’t have a “left.” Or a right. Or a body at all. Seattle’s light rail is fully automated, except for the occasional clerk wandering the train, checking to make sure everyone has a ticket. The lady getting personal with all of us was a computer-generated voice. Only a slight digital pause gave her away—well, that and my local friend had explained the system to me when we took the train to see the Mariners steamroll my poor beleaguered Mets last week.

A couple of years ago, Vice published a fairly comprehensive who’s who of urban mass transit announcers. Of course, Seattle’s digital lady is not among them. Because she doesn’t exist.

I found a Q&A thread of Seattle-ites (Seattalians?) wondering about their transit voice. A user named “vdcidet” also found the conductor’s word choice overly personal:

Light rail modified the voice not to long ago. It is 1000x better. It was all “fake nice sing songy” like the spokeswoman that only lasted a few years for the local mattress company (can’t recall what company but those commercials drove me insane). Now it is a little cooler but still tries to be Star Trek (not doors to “my” right…).

Look, any transit system that builds subway stops like ballrooms is okay by me. But spare me Artificial Intelligence with a personal touch. I don’t know about the Star Trek analogy, but it is pretty creepy.

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Generosity & authenticity: Going the extra millimeter

I received two packages this week, things I ordered online. Both packages contained a little something extra, intended to surprise and delight me as a customer. Let’s see how that went:

Package #1
I know it’s only August, but I ordered myself another planning journal to use next year. Hey—the company was having a sale. I bought one undated journal but the package contained two books. A printed card explained:

“Our company revolves around giving so we’ve decided to give you a free [journal] to give to one of your loved ones.”

Sounds like generosity, right? And my loved one was thrilled. Until we opened the free journal to find that it’s a 2016 model, useful only for the next three months. So they may say “our company revolves around giving” but I quickly translated that as:

“We didn’t want to pulp our excess stock.”

Generosity: Paper Epiphanies goes the extra mile
Great customer service from Paper Epiphanies

Package #2
My first order from Paper Epiphanies contained not just the blank “All Around Creative Badass” journal I’d ordered, but also a birthday card, and a hand-written note advising me:

“Use it wisely! I’m super serious.”

Not sure whether it’s the card or the journal I’m supposed to use wisely. But the “I’m super serious” makes me smile every time I think about it.

That’s generosity. That’s going the proverbial extra mile. And it worked: I’ve already placed my next order.

What does this have to do with speeches?

Quite a lot, actually. When you’re offered the opportunity to speak, you want your speech to be the one with the surprise—the something extra that people didn’t expect, didn’t know they needed, but that puts a smile on their face (and, ideally, a new thought in their brains). Delight your audience and they’ll bond with you, they’ll remember you. And, yes, they’ll probably want to work with you if you have a service you sell, or buy your product.

But if your speech amounts to nothing more than a 20-minute commercial for your brand, if you don’t engage your generosity and offer people anything of value that they can make their own and use, they’ll resent the time they spent listening to you. (That’s assuming they’re polite enough to listen in the first place.)

But—I hear you say—the journal would be useful for over three months. Yes. And if someone used it for three months, they’d probably want to buy one for next year, too. That’s the same model drug dealers use to cement their customer relationships—”the first taste is free.” (At least that what I’ve read.)

Unlike the journal company, Paper Epiphanies gave me something I can use whenever I like; the birthday card has no expiration date. It may well be excess stock—perhaps “Happy birthday to my favorite Wild Woman” wasn’t a big seller for them (as unlikely as it seems)—but to me it just looks like a thoughtful gift. They get to show me additional merchandise; I get to send someone a nicer birthday card than I could find in the grocery store. That’s adding value, you bet.

Chris Anderson, the curator of TED Talks, tells a story of a speaker who was so blatantly self-promotional that Anderson felt compelled to interrupt him. In his invaluable book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, Anderson writes:

“Here’s the irony. This greedy approach to speaking doesn’t even serve the speaker’s interest. I’d be amazed if he got a single booking from anyone in that audience. And even if he did, it had to be offset by a loss of respect from others in the room. Needless to say, we never posted the talk online.”

The journal company may “revolve around giving,” but you wouldn’t know it from their giveaway. Whether you’re selling consumer products or making a speech, make sure your words and your actions align. And be generous!

The fun is in the details

When you buy a CD from Amazon, you get a confirmation email. When you buy a CD from the indie music giant CD Baby, you get a comic masterpiece:

Thanks for your order with CD Baby!

Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow. A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing. Our world-renowned packing specialist lit a local artisan candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy. We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved “Bon Voyage!” to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day.

We hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. In commemoration, we have placed your picture on our wall as “Customer of the Year.” We’re all exhausted but can’t wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!


We miss you already. We’ll be right here at patiently awaiting your return…

All your friends at CD Baby

This email took CD Baby founder Derek Sivers all of 20 minutes to write. But notice how much memorable detail he crammed into less than 200 words. What a picture he paints! The exaggerated reverence—satin pillow, 50 employees polishing the CD, packaging it to ship in the light of an artisanal candle, the transportation by “private CD Baby jet.” (By the way, if you’d like to receive your very own copy of this email, just buy something from CD Baby. Here’s a great place to start.)

Just as my father told me many years ago, when you make people laugh they remember you. Email hadn’t been invented yet, so he spoke of a physical letter being passed around an office. Well, CD Baby’s email has been passed around the digital office: Google the phrase “private CD Baby jet” and you’ll find more than 60,000 citations. And who can begin to count all the readers those citations have reached?

By the way, Zappos seems to have gotten in on the act now. I just received this acknowledgment of a return:

Greetings Elaine Bennett,

Thank you for shopping with! We wanted to let you know that your return is back safe and sound in our warehouse. That trip over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house went smoothly.

I had no idea grandmother worked at Zappos. I hope they’re paying her well.

Of crises and corporate culture

I opened up my Facebook feed earlier this week and found this story, written by a JetBlue flight attendant named Kelly Davis Karas. I don’t know Kelly, but her story has been shared widely at this point and even made it to CNN. But I’m going with the Facebook post here, because it’s everything a personal story should be: detailed, emotional, resonant.

I hadn’t intended to make this post about comparative literature, but if you compare Kelly’s Facebook post with the CNN article, you’ll see a perfect example of authenticity vs. objectivity. If I were writing this up for JetBlue—either for an in-house communication or for an executive speech—I’d be quoting Kelly, not CNN.

Kelly Davis Karas
June 14 at 3:23pm · Kennebunk, ME ·

Below is a picture of Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo. Omar, as his friends and family called him, was a Latino man gunned down at an LGBTQ bar in Orlando last weekend. He was 20-years-old.

Today my dear friend Melinda and I had the sad privilege of attending to his grandmother on our flight as she made her journey to Orlando to join her family during this unspeakable time.

Knowing she was making this hard journey alone, JetBlue employees made sure to be at her side every step of the way. Melinda stood quietly by her wheelchair while we waited until it was time to board. Kellie, the gate agent, boarded with her and helped get her settled. Melinda and I gave her a blanket, a pillow, a box of tissues and water so she could be as comfortable as possible. She was understandably distraught, but met us with kindness and gentleness. And gratitude.

But here’s where our flight got truly inspiring. I had the idea to pass around a piece of paper to everyone on board and invite them to sign it for this grieving grandmother. I talked it over with Melinda and she started the process from the back of the plane. As we took beverage orders, we whispered a heads up about the plan as we went.

Halfway through, Melinda called me, “Kel, I think you should start another paper from the front. Folks are writing PARAGRAPHS.” So I did. Then we started one in the middle. Lastly, running out of time on our hour and fifteen minute flight, we handed out pieces of paper to everyone still waiting.

When we gathered them together to present them to her, we didn’t have just a sheet of paper covered in names, which is what I had envisioned. Instead, we had page after page after page after page of long messages offering condolences, peace, love and support. There were even a couple of cash donations, and more than a few tears.

When we landed, I made an announcement that the company had emailed to us earlier in the morning to use as an optional addition to our normal landing announcement, which states “JetBlue stands with Orlando.” Then with her permission and at the request of a couple of passengers, we offered a moment of silence in Omar’s memory.

As we deplaned, EVERY SINGLE PERSON STOPPED TO OFFER HER THEIR CONDOLENCES. Some just said they were sorry, some touched her hand, some hugged her, some cried with her. But every single person stopped to speak to her, and not a single person was impatient at the slower deplaning process.

I am moved to tears yet again as I struggle to put our experience into words. In spite of a few hateful, broken human beings in this world who can all too easily legally get their hands on mass assault weapons – people ARE kind. People DO care. And through our customers’ humanity today, and through the generosity of this wonderful company I am so grateful to work for, I am hopeful that someday soon we can rally together to make the world a safer place for all.

I will never forget today. ‪#‎Orlandoproud‬

I had intended to write here about empowering employees to embody the corporate culture in their interactions with clients and coworkers. But I think I’ll just leave you to contemplate the power of words. Excuse me while I hunt down another box of Kleenex.

“We’ll call you within two days”

My furnace died yesterday morning.  I called some local heating guys and I called our electric & gas utility, too, because someone suggested it to my partner.

The locals were at my house almost before I hung up the phone.  The utility said, after I got through the computer responses and managed to talk with a human being, “We’ll have someone call you within two days.”

I guess the concept of “dead furnace” means something different to a guy sitting in a phone bank with some headphones wrapped around his head than it does to the person sitting a freezing house.  The small businesspeople know that. The big business doesn’t care.

For the record, the utility called in less than 36 hours…While my new furnace was being installed.

When is a deadline not a deadline?

I understand deadlines – I’ve been working with them for over 20 years.  And I’m proud to say that I have never in my professional career missed a deadline.  Not once.

But apparently not everyone feels the same way.  Case in point, the gentleman I just spoke with from the customer service department of a major financial services company.

I happened to be checking my bill online this morning when I noticed that the due date had been moved forward by two weeks – in this instance, from early July to late June. Problem is, for as long as I’ve been doing business with this company I have budgeted to pay the bill early in the month.  So I called customer service:

“Oh,” the rep said, cheerfully. “You don’t have to worry about that.  I know it says ‘due by June 28th’ on the bill, but it’s not actually due until mid-July.”

Then why doesn’t it say mid-July?

Apparently, this company treats its customers like college students who require an automatic extension on the term paper.  I mean, if they don’t think I’m responsible enough to understand a deadline, then why are they doing business with me in the first place?

For me, good customer service is honest and transparent.  Say what you need and I’ll deliver on it.  I really can’t imagine doing business any other way.