Memorable ideas: the microwave

“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


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

“Roses are red/Violets are _________”

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

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

If you start the poem:

Rose are red,
Violets are violet

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

How about this?

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

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

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

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

How do I integrate slides in my speeches? — Frequent Questions

Q; How do I integrate slides in my speeches?
A: Do you really have to? Really?

I have nothing against slides—if they add value to a speech. But most speakers ask for slides because:

  1. everyone else uses them
  2. they need a reminder of what they’re talking about
  3. they want to believe it’s a TED Talk
  4. holding the clicky thing gives them something to do with their hands.

Look, none of these are capital offenses. But they’re not particularly good reasons, either.

Because everyone else uses them?

But the majority of “everyone else” uses them badly. Still, if you’ve sat through dozens of presentations with eye-chart slides, you think that’s the way to give a professional presentation.

You load up each slide with as much information as it can handle. If your audience can read the tiny type at all, they’ll have taken in the information in a minute flat. But they have to sit there listening to you read it to them for the next five or 10.

Is this a good use of anyone’s time? Will they be a) grateful for the information? Or just b) grateful that you’ve stopped talking?

How have you felt sitting through one of those presentations? So why would you inflict it on anyone else?

Integrate slides to add value to the presentation

There’s only one reason to use slides—and if you pay close attention to the mainstage TED Talks, you’ll see that’s how they use slides: to add value to what you’re saying.

If you’re talking about rocket science, you don’t need a picture of a rocket ship: everyone in your audience could pick a rocket ship out of a lineup. Showing them a photograph of one only diverts their attention away from you. And in my book, that’s the biggest mistake a speaker can make.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Chris Anderson, the Head of TED, from his book TED Talks: the Official TED guide to public speaking:

“…the first question to ask yourself is whether you need [slides]. It’s a striking fact that at least a third of TED’s most viewed talks make no use of slides whatsoever.”

One-third—sling that fact at the next person who tells you you need to use slides “because TED.”

Also, Anderson says if your presentation is well-written, you don’t need gimmicks. Okay, he didn’t exactly say that. He said:

“…if the core of your talk is intensely personal, or if you have other devices for livening up your talk—like humor or vivid stories—then you may do better to forget the visuals and just focus on speaking personally to the audience.”

I added the emphasis there. Of course.

But if you still feel you need visual aids, integrate slides into your presentation. Or as Anderson says:

“there needs to be a compelling fit between what you tell and what you show.”


“…limit each slide to a single core idea.”

integrate slides
Webinars need slides. But see how I feed the audience the info one idea at a time?

The bottom line:

“When you think about it, it’s fairly simple. The main purpose of visuals can’t be communicate words; your mouth is perfectly good at doing that. It’s to share things your mouth can’t do so well: photographs, video, animations, key data.”

Integrate slides into your script

Today’s question came from one of my readers on LinkedIn. All the poor man wanted to know, I think, was how to integrate slides into the text he gives his client.

That’s easy:


insert fascinating text here


more fascinating stuff here

But really, try as hard as you can to convince your speaker to go without slides. And if you can’t, read Nancy Duarte’s great book Slide-ology to learn how to do it right.

Want to get better at writing speeches? Click here to get my free tips for speakers and I’ll notify you when my next speechwriting webinar launches.

How do you know if something is a bad idea? — Frequent Questions

Q: How do you know if something is a bad idea?
A: Have you tried asking it?

bad ideaSome days I think the definition of a bad idea must be any idea that originated in my head. I’ll bet you’ve had days like that too. Especially if you’re a writer.

But my answer above isn’t 100% snark. If the idea that seemed so promising when you wrote it down last night (last week, last year) seems somewhere between clichéd and imbecilic today—well, it might be. You could be seeing it clearly and objectively for the first time. Or maybe the moment of clarity happened when you created the idea, and you’ve just stopped trusting yourself in the interim.

So take that idea out for a spin. Spend 15 minutes writing about it. Outfit it with the best words you know how to create. Then wait. Close the file or put the papers in a drawer overnight. Look at it again in the morning. That old idea just might surprise you.

The way-ay-ting is the hardest part

Please notice that sentence in the previous paragraph—two words right about in the middle:

Then wait.

Whether you start with a bad idea or good idea, do not judge your first draft immediately after writing it.

That’s one of the key principles I talk about when I teach revision techniques. And even though my writers have heard me say it a million times, they still succumb to temptation.

Especially if you’re the kind of person who judges your work harshly—yes, I’m talking to you, Dear Writer-Who-Thinks-All-Your-Ideas-are-Bad—you need to get some distance from your work before you make any decisions about it.

You need to trust your instincts, but if your instincts tell you to trash every idea you come up with, you might need to recalibrate. Find a trusted friend, a teacher, someone whose writing you admire, and run the idea by them. Chances are, you’ll have a glint of a good idea in there somewhere. Just keep looking for it, as objectively as possible.

If you’re secretly attached to your files full of unfinished writing …if you enjoy collecting rejection emails…if you worry that effective marketing would generate too much income for your business DO NOT register for my VIP class on Revision.

Lawyers and letters, a writer’s tale of frustration

I don’t hate lawyers. Let’s be clear on that, okay?

But I do—well, not hate—feel really super-annoyed by anyone who’s afraid to say anything controversial. Anything.  It’s hard to write with a constraint like that.

Sometimes I’m blessed to write for someone with actual opinions about the way the world should work, and I write those opinions, and we’re both pleased with the results. This might change the world, we think foolishly.

And then it goes to—you guessed it—the lawyers.

And it comes back stripped of pretty much everything resembling an idea. Seriously. Sometimes I think if I wrote

“Moms like apple pie.”

The lawyers’ note would be:

“Don’t offend by leaving out the dads; also people who aren’t parents. Also, other fruits.”

lawyersA few good lawyers

Only once in all of my years of writing have I encountered a lawyer who understood what I was trying to do. He wasn’t a corporate lawyer, though—maybe that’s the difference. He wasn’t trying to imagine what the higher-ups might think; he was a higher-up—he  had the autonomy to make his own decisions.

I had drafted a white paper for my client. We wanted to reach journalists, to convince them of the merits of our client’s argument. And journalists, even more than regular human beings, appreciate good writing. Since, even more than regular human beings, they have to read so much that isn’t. But the client had also hired a lawyer; he needed to vet the draft.

Most of the revisions were fine—factual corrections, a couple of helpful word changes. The lawyer hadn’t messed with my argument too much. But he’d de-fanged my opening sentence. And I just couldn’t let that pass.

We all know how important first impressions are when we meet people. They’re even more important in writing.

In person if the first thing out of your mouth doesn’t grab someone, you may have a chance to redeem yourself with a witty second remark. But in writing, if the first sentence sucks, a reader doesn’t have to be polite and stick around for the second.

The lawyer and I traded a few emails, revising and re-revising that opening line. We even got on the phone together. I explained my reasoning, he explained his, and we arrived at a solution that suited us both.

That’s the way the process should work.

Sadly, it doesn’t often work that way. When the people vetting your draft are more interested in covering their asses than in communicating—I was going to write “chaos ensues.” But chaos at least has the benefit of being interesting. And most documents that survive risk review are not.

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.

Golf v. Gladwell — a sly writer at play

golf ball
Photo from

Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast returned yesterday. Shorter than I remembered it (just over half an hour) but still packed with smarts and attitude and surprise. Season 2’s first episode takes its title from Winston Churchill’s remark that golf is a great way to spoil a good walk.

Of course, like most bons mots attributed to Churchill, this one’s not his—at least not originally. One of his predecessors as prime minister, the 19th century British politician William Gladstone, said something very much like it. But my favorite iteration comes from an early 20th century novelist, Harry Leon Wilson, who wrote:

Some of his friends have been trying to induce him to play golf, but he refused. He makes the following unique definition of golf:  “Golf has too much walking to be a good game, and just enough game to spoil a good walk.”

But I digress.

My point is that Gladwell uses this very famous description of golf as the title of the podcast. But unless I missed it, he never mentions Churchill, or Gladstone—or even the famous quote itself. That’s not exactly a “best practice” in writing. If you use a quote like that, you want to reference it.

But when I got to the end of the podcast, I realized where he’d been going with it. It’s sly commentary, so clever it made me grin. I won’t give it away, but my hat’s off to Malcolm Gladwell.

Like Gladstone and Gladwell, I hate golf. But I treasure great writing. And whether he’s writing for the page or for the podcast, Malcolm Gladwell delivers some of the best writing around. If you missed the first season of Revisionist History, catch up with it here. And enjoy.

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.

David Sedaris and the Story Safari

David Sedaris
David Sedaris on the radio in Boston, Photo by WBUR , CC BY-SA 2.0

One of my favorite storytellers, David Sedaris, has published his diaries. Well, selections from the first 25 years of his diaries. At this writing, I’m still stranded metaphorically on the side of a desert road with him—he seems to have hitchhiked his way through much of the late 1970s. So I can’t report on the rest of the book. But I loved the Introduction.

Sedaris talked about his long-time practice of carrying a notebook:

“…a small one I keep in my shirt pocket and never leave the house without. In it I register all the little things that atrike me, not in great detail but just quickly. The following morning I’ll review what I jotted down and look for the most meaningful moment in the previous day…”

In other words, every day is a Story Safari for David Sedaris.

What kinds of things does he capture in his notebook?

“It could have been seeing an old friend, or just as likely it could have been watching a stranger eat a sandwich with his eyes closed. (That happened recently, and was riveting.)”

You never know what treasures you’ll pick up on a Story Safari. Some you may never use; others will turn out to be the perfect anecdote to illustrate a difficult point. But unless you write down the stories as you notice them, they’ll disappear in the fog of grocery lists and old phone numbers that envelops everyone’s brain eventually.

What did David Sedaris call his new book?

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that while I’ve praised the book, I haven’t yet told you its title. That’s a Story Safari on its own:

“Not long after deciding to release a book of diary entries, I came upon a five-pound note. I’d been picking up trash alongside a country road in West Sussex, and there it was between a potato-chip bag and a half-full beer can that had drowned slugs in it.”

Notice the details Sedaris gives us—as well as the one he left out: Why was he picking up trash by the roadside? Was it some sort of community service, or was he just doing a service for his community? At any rate, he told a friend about the £5 windfall and she informed him that by spending the money, he’d committed a crime:

“In the U.K., if you discover something of value and keep it, that’s theft by finding.”

Theft by Finding seemed the perfect title for the book, which (he says) documents other people’s feelings and behavior far more closely than his own.

I suspect to find the results of many fascinating Story Safaris in this new David Sedaris book. I can hardly wait to read them.

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.

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.

“You should never tell stories. Stories are the worst.”

“Stories are terrible. You should never tell stories. Stories are the worst.”

I would never disagree with Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman about anything economic. But he’s making proclamations about my areas of expertise here. And Nobel or not, he’s dead wrong.

Stephen J. Dubner, photo by Audrey S. Bernstein, CC BY-SA 4.0

Okay, that’s not a direct quote from Kahneman. It’s Kahneman as told by Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of the Freakonomics books.

Storytelling propelled Freakonomics to the best seller lists. Let me rephrase that: a book about economics hit #2 on The New York Times Best-Seller list. A book about economics.

Because it wasn’t just a book about economics. Freakonomics melds story, theory, and data into such a compelling package that anyone can get drawn into the story. Even the kind of person who fell asleep in the back row of Economics class. Even the kind of person who would never register for Economics class.

Stories vs. anecdotes

So why does Dr. Kahneman hate stories so much?

It turns out he didn’t understand what Dubner meant by the term. In his interview on Tim Ferriss’s podcast, Dubner explained Kahneman’s objection:

“…he said, ‘Stories don’t contain any data and they don’t have any time – they don’t have a time series attached to them.’ And I realized that Danny kind of, Danny thought I was talking about was not so much what I think of as a story, but what I think of as an anecdote.

An anecdote would be, like, let’s say we’re talking about drunk driving and the actual data and the numbers and so on. And I can tell you that the data seem to show that if I’m a drunk driver vs. a sober driver I’m 13 times more likely to get involved in a fatal crash. That’s what I tell you the data say.

And then you say, ‘Well I’ve got an uncle, my uncle’s accountant drinks every night at the tavern and drives home and he’s never even had a fender-bender.’ That’s an anecdote.”

Heck, using that definition even I would hate stories. So what’s Dubner’s definition?

“…to me what a story is it’s got the narrative but it does include the kinds of things that Danny Kahneman says you need to include, which is data and time series. Data, because you need to know the magnitude of the story —is it really important? And time series because you need to know if it was a kind of blip or if it really persisted. And that to me are the elements of a good story: data, a time element, at time series and a narrative with characters that people can identify with.”

Dubner had one other requirement for a story.

“And, by the way, it needs to all be true. I’m a journalist by training, I’m a nonfiction writer. And I believe that the best kind of storytelling is where you’ve got real reporting, real numbers, and you can make an argument that acknowledges my argument is not perfect, it’s not meant to be, but it is compelling because it is true.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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.

TK — what to write when you don’t know what to write

Journalists have a great shorthand for “I have no idea what belongs here, but something does.” When they plan to add more information later, they type TK, a funky abbreviation for “to come.”

When my writers worry that they won’t have enough material to fill their 15 minutes a day, I tell them to sit down at the keyboard and type:

I have no idea what to write about.

And keep typing that sentence until one of two things happens:

  1. The ding on the timer signals the end of your 15 minutes, or
  2. You get an actual idea.

I’ve never had to employ this trick myself, but I suppose there’s always a first time.

Coming back from what passes for a vacation in my overworked life, I found it difficult to tap back into work mode. Perhaps because I tried to do it on a Saturday. Well, hey—I’d been away from my office for 10 days. I was supposed to stay away two more just because the neighbors call it a “weekend”?

So my mind kept saying TK.

And I couldn’t find my focus. No matter how hard I tried.

TK, transparency

Two things I refuse to do with this TK state:

  1. Call it writer’s block
  2. Hide it.

Writer’s block doesn’t exist. I’ve written about that enough already.

But not every idea is a good idea; not every piece of writing will be brilliant. Case in point, today: I’m about 80% done with this blog and a good idea is still TK.

Sometimes my writers express amazement that I  can write “so well” (their words, not mine) every day. Well, I don’t. I mean, hellloooooo.

Apologies to my readers who’ve had to wade through this. I thought about tossing this post in the digital trash, but I think we can extract some value from it.

When your idea is TK, focus on the C.

You don’t have to be perfect every time. In fact, you can’t—no one can. So just get it done. Get a C. And wake up again tomorrow and write some more.

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.