The woman presenting a lecture on grit last night claimed that people who exhibit grit focus on the former rather than the latter. That sparked a lively discussion among some of her listeners. Some believe perfection must automatically be excellent. Why wouldn’t we strive for perfection? they asked.
I thought about the writers I’ve worked with over the years. So many get stuck because if they cannot compose the perfect sentence—and, spoiler alert, no one can compose a perfect sentence, certainly not on a first try—they’re afraid to write anything.
I thought about myself, when I’m learning a new skill. It’s much easier to stop trying at all than to confront my mediocre attempts.
In those cases, striving for perfection doesn’t produce excellence, it produces nothing.
As my friend (and not relative) Sam Bennett says: “Get a C.” Do something. Try. And if you fall short of excellence, congratulate yourself on being human. If improvement is important to you, then try again. And again after that (for 10,000 hours, if you believe the statistic Malcolm Gladwell misquoted). That’s grit.
Maybe at some point you’ll stumble onto excellence; maybe not. But perfection—if that’s your goal, you’ll never get anything creative done.
Everyone cites Nora Ephron’s example—from her high school journalism teacher—who spun out a long story about the teachers taking a day off the following Thursday to go to some state-wide conference with the Governor (or something). He asked the students to imagine they were writing that story for the school newspaper: what’s the lede?
Surely the “most important” information in that story is that their teachers would be meeting with the Governor, no?
Not for a student audience: the most important detail is “No school on Thursday.” If that’s not the first sentence of the school newspaper’s story, the writer has buried the lede.
But on my stroll through the cemetery yesterday, I came across a literal case of burying the lede.
There’s a gravestone for a woman named Anne. I’ll call her Anne Surname #1.
What does the stone tell us about Anne?
She’s identified as wife of Peter Surname #1, who died in the 1930s and of Samuel Surname #2, who died in the 1950s.
When did Anne die?
That’s an excellent question—in fact, it’s not a stretch to call it the lede in the story the gravestone tells. But apparently no one thought to answer it.
Yep, the only info we have on Anne is her name—no, not even that—her first married name and her two husbands’ names.
Everybody knows the lede?
Do you find it hard to believe that no one—not the family, not the gravestone-carver—noticed the missing information? I don’t.
How many emails have you received inviting you to events or webinars…but neglecting to tell you when those events might be happening?
When you’re writing for an internal audience at your company, it’s easy to forget details. Maybe not the lede—hopefully not the lede—but many times internal communications tell you what a new program is, but not why it matters to the reader.
Don’t assume that everyone knows. Within your team, maybe. But if you’re trying to reach a wider audience, make sure to get an extra set of eyes on your draft. Have someone who’s not involved in the program give it the once-over. And then answer any questions they have.
I only wish we could do that for Anne.
Unbury your ledes and discover the keys to writing great business writing. No, that’s not an oxymoron. Register for my Writing Unbound program; next class begins in Fall 2018.
Usually my writers slide their assignments under the virtual door of my Facebook group/office just ahead of our next Writing Unbound class. But this week—this week they jumped on the assignment. I think they started writing before the video even finished playing. What was this compelling exercise? Create some bad writing.
Bad writing is the thing we writers fear most, right? So I gave them permission to stink.
They came up with some creative work—clichés piled on top of each other, unsavory images rendered in such detail you would think they were composed of pixels instead of words. But I have to say, each of their pieces had some redeeming features.
We writers are always deciding that our writing sucks. But it turns out bad writing is pretty darn hard to do—even when you’re explicitly trying to do it. I hope they remember that the next time they think they’ve created it by accident.
My own bad writing
I once wrote a sentence so bad, so inappropriate for the speaker and the audience, so full of purple prose—well, maybe not exactly purple, as you’ll see. Still, I couldn’t hit delete. I didn’t want to lose such a vivid metaphor…but I also didn’t want to lose my job. So I pasted it into a document all by itself and I printed it out and tacked it to the wall behind my computer monitor.
My very macho client was speaking about the fall of Communism (it was the early ’90s) and I wrote something like:
“…and every day it seems new countries are being born. Like all births, it’s a messy process…”
He would have made history—the first Wall Street titan to deploy a placenta metaphor. Instead I got the first entry in my outtakes file.
Bad writing can be liberating. I’m sure I’ve written lots of stupid or inelegant sentences since then. But I don’t think I’ll ever again write anything quite so bad. And yet I’m still here. Still alive. Still making words appear at the mere touch of my fingers.
If you think you’re writing badly, lean into it. Write worse. Make it as god-awful as you possibly can. And then have a good, long laugh.
What were you doing when you were 24 years old? I’ll tell you what you weren’t doing–because very few 24-year-olds ever do it. Heck, very few people of any age get to do it. One guy hit the word-lottery when he became a presidential speechwriter, just a few years out of college.
Okay, David Litt may have been slightly older than 24 when he started writing for President Barack Obama. His first gig at the White House was writing for Obama’s longtime advisor Valerie Jarrett. Time and attrition moved him ever closer to the Oval Office.
The president’s “real” speechwriters tossed him a small assignment from time to time. And then one day in Obama’s second term, Litt found himself not just a presidential speechwriter, but a “Senior Advisor to the President.” On the one hand, people commonly abbreviated that title to SAP. He was a SAP. On the other hand, he got his own key to the senior staff gym.
While the job he did had serious implications, Litt never seems to take himself too seriously. To hear him tell it, he came perilously close to losing his job several times. But he also Spoke Truth to Power and made President Obama laugh so hard that Litt sensed he forgot he was president. Just for a second.
Presidential Speechwriter, rookie mistake
One of my favorite stories involves one of Litt’s first assignments for the president–a short speech about Infrastructure.
Litt made a rookie mistake–and he comes across as so charming in the book that I won’t stop to wonder how you get to be a presidential speechwriter and still be making rookie mistakes.
Anyway, Litt dove headfirst into researching this infrastructure speech. He knew the American infrastructure, like, down to the last rivet. And he put all of his new-found knowledge into the draft.
Beware the Curse of Knowledge. As the Heath Brothers tell us in Made to Stick, you have to remember who your audience is–and who your speaker is. An audience of engineers may have appreciated the draft Litt turned in; an engineer delivering the speech might have knocked it out of the park.
But it wasn’t an engineer giving the speech, it was President Obama. And not only does he not know the granular details Litt packed into his draft, no one wants to hear the president deliver granular details. They want the president to uplift them, to inspire them, to speak about the large picture, about how the United States depends on a healthy infrastructure and by golly we’re going to take care of that.
I’ve fallen into the same trap–I once tried to get a businessman to reference Aristotle. No dice. I knew better, but it seemed so perfect. Just this once, I told myself. My lovely idea died a swift death in review. As it should have.
If you want to learn more about how speechwriting works, if you want to peek inside the Obama White House, or if you just want a compelling read, Thanks, Obama will hook you from page one.
Done with my ten-day traipse around the midwest, I finally saw the doctor yesterday: She ordered me to stay bed for two days. Two days’ rest? Is she high?
No, but I’ll tell you what else she isn’t: an entrepreneur.
Or, Fenway gently reminds me, a dog-mom.
Well, clearly something has to give. I showed up for all my appointments an hour early yesterday. Well, the first appointment, a phone call, got canceled.
But I showed up in person for the second one and set a lot of heads scratching.
“I’m here for my eleven-thirty!” I smiled my chipperest, no-way-I’m-feeling-poorly smile.
“But we don’t have you down until twelve-thirty.” And the 11:30 energy drained in a flash. When I returned hour later, the first thing they did was put a face mask on me.
ProTip: When changing time zones, make sure your calendar has reoriented itself to your destination time before making note of the day’s appointments.
Still, if you’re going to make that mistake, eastbound is the direction you want to make it in. I once had a client with a 5pm flight out of JFK linger surprisingly long in our afternoon meeting. He’d decided to keep his watch set on west-coast time, but then went ahead and read it as if it were New York time. Of course, a cell phone would have automatically updated—unless you kept it on airplane mode, where I discovered my iPad just now more than 24 hours after we left the airport.
Well, maybe one really good day’s rest will do. On East Coast time.
Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day starting September 18th and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.
One of the great singers of the American musical theatre passed away yesterday. I may be somewhat less than objective about her—I once drove 36 miles in a raging blizzard because I had front-row seats to a one-night-only concert—but I think some of the qualities that made Barbara Cook such a great singer parallel the qualities we need to be great writers.
Teaching master classes at the Juilliard School in recent years, Ms. Cook often waved off her students’ preoccupation with vocal perfection, pushing them instead to get at the pain and joy beneath the notes.
“What is this song about?” she demanded of one bewildered class.
Writers may not always be dealing with the extremes of “pain and joy,” but we must have an emotional connection to what we write. It’s the only way we can hope that our audience will also have an emotional connection to the material. And without an emotional connection, without knowing what your message is about, they’re just listening to a bunch of words. And who cares about that?
Notice also Cook’s insistence that the singers stop obsessing about sounding perfect. Perfection is just a roadblock we create. Because it’s unattainable, we can constantly belittle ourselves when we fall short of it. In her concerts, Cook would sometimes stop in mid-song and start all over again if she sensed something was off—not because she wanted to sing perfectly, but because she wanted the audience know that she was just as human as we are.
Barbara Cook: Words matter, the truth matters
But one thing Barbara Cook pursued rigorously, especially in her career as a cabaret singer: the truth. When she sang a lyric, you knew exactly what it meant. And fortunately for us, later in life she discovered the work of Stephen Sondheim—devilishly hard music with lyrics that demand complete emotional connection. Asked by Broadway.com to name her three favorite songs to sing, she chose two by Sondheim. Sondheim, in turn, told The Washington Post in 2002:
“No one sings theater songs with more feeling for the music or more understanding of the lyrics than Barbara.”
After winning acclaim—and a Tony Award—on Broadway, Cook took a left turn into alcoholism and depression, emerging in the mid-1970s onto the cabaret circuit. This soon led to a recording contract with Columbia Records. And that is how her Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall record entered my collection: I gave blood one day while I was working at CBS and picked the record out of a bin set aside to reward donors. I never suspected it would be the start of a four-decade-long musical crush. But that’s a story for another time.
The New York Times obit again:
Paying less heed to the technical virtuosity that had thrilled audiences in big Broadway theaters, she now emphasized phrasing and styling to project a song’s emotions in smaller, more intimate settings.
The effect was striking. She had made no secret of her personal problems. But character and hard-won experience seemed to suffuse her songs, and it connected with audiences and critics. The reviewers took up a refrain, with phrases like “simple honesty,” “simplicity and directness” and “straightforward and declamatory.”
Obviously I added the emphasis, but this is authenticity. And it works as well when you’re reading a speech as it does when you’re singing a showtune. Connect with honesty—character flaws and all—and your audiences will connect with you.
Her three favorite songs to sing
“He Was Too Good to Me” by Rodgers and Hart (recording released in 1959) — bear with her through the verse; the emotion kicks in with the song proper. And listen to that crystalline soprano. If this song doesn’t have you reaching for the Kleenex, I don’t know what will.
Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”—yes, I’ve overdosed on this song too. But listen to the lyrics—you can hear every one.
The third song Cook mentioned was Sondheim’s “So Many People.” It’s the second half of this arrangement. Although it comes from Cook’s Sondheim album, this is Malcolm Gets singing. I couldn’t find a recording of Cook herself singing it.
Goodnight, dear Barbara Cook
I’ll leave you with Cook in her prime—1957—from her Tony Award-winning role, Marion the Librarian in The Music Man.
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:
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.
Nonprofit 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.
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.
Yesterday, 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.
I hate it when that happens. First, because I inconvenience my subscribers, who received two emails about my blog on the same day. Apologies, folks.
And second because I inconvenience myself. Instead of moving on to do the other writing I’ve got piled on my desk, here I am writing a second blog post for tomorrow. This one—I’ve double-checked—really won’t post until tomorrow.
I take solace in the fact that, as far as I know, the readership of this blog remains 100% human. So you’ve probably made mistakes too.
I just hope that reading this blog isn’t one of them.