A Date to Remember — September 11th

I may have been confused about the day when I wrote yesterday’s blog, but there’s no mistaking September 11th. As I opened up the window to write this blog, I wondered what I might write about. But the minute I filled in the posting date, the topic became clear.

I used to work at the World Trade Center, in Building 7, the last one to pancake into a pile of rubble sixteen years ago. The first time they tried to bomb the World Trade Center, I felt our building shudder, saw the smoke emerging from the parking garage entrance, walked down 46 flights of stairs with my frightened colleagues.

But after two years of working in that place, I knew its geography intimately. So when the news reports started coming in on September 11th, I could picture it clear as day. The pockmarked white marble walls, the back stairs, the shortcuts that might have taken some people to safety. Until they pancaked too.

A lot changed on September 11th, so much more than the New York City skyline. One of my friends became a Republican, worried that the Democrats would compromise our safety. Xenophobia came out of the closet on September 11th and it’s only grown stronger since. My Republican friend is not a xenophobe—and didn’t vote for Trump—but many others are. And did.

As determined as we were not to “let the terrorists win,” the America we live in today is not the same country I grew up in, not the same country we were on September 10th—or even September 12th—sixteen years ago.

Me, I’ll be taking a social media break today. I can’t stand to see my feeds stuffed with waving flags and “Never Forget” admonitions.

I don’t need the reminder, thanks.


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What makes a great lede great?

You want pressure? Try to write a lede for a piece about writing a great lede.

My resident critic swats away every phrase I think of. It’s like Federer vs. Nadal in my head, like Navratilova vs. Graf at the 1985 U.S. Open (still the best tennis match I’ve ever seen). Steffi seemed on the cusp of beating the then-best player the women’s game had ever seen. And Martina’s superhuman ability threatened to become merely human. I remember screaming at the television, almost with each point.

Ah…nothing like a good digression to take the pressure off. Okay, ledes.

I found this lede in an article by Chris Smith on VanityFair.com:

"Robert Mueller is not ending the summer with a tan"—a great lede

The lede paragraph is supposed to summarize the key points of the article. But is this piece really about Robert Mueller’s melanin? Or his work schedule?

No, it’s about Robert Mueller’s inexhaustible pursuit of Donald Trump. But I love the laid-back opening; it mirrors Mueller’s image. Cool. Indefatiguable. The exact opposite of the central figure he’s investigating.

Break the rules to make a great lede

“Robert Mueller is not ending the summer with a tan.” It’s not a classic lede—it breaks the all the rules of a lede for a news story—and that’s exactly what makes it a great lede.

It pulls you up short. Say what? It’s like walking past a person in a business suit wearing a gorilla head. You can’t help but notice the incongruity. You want to know why it’s there. And so you keep reading.

In a newspaper article, the lede paragraph needs to sum up the story for readers who don’t have time to keep reading. But in a profile or a magazine article, the lede needs to capture the readers’ attention and draw them deeper into the story. We may think about Robert Mueller’s work, but who thinks about his skin? It’s an incongruous detail.

Now, incongruity is great, but only in small doses. You don’t want to become the writer who starts every piece from an odd angle. Or an outright digression (see above).

Well, I didn’t actually begin with the digression, did I? That might alienate the reader. You start reading an article about the best tennis matches of all time and you end up with an instructional piece about ledes. Tennis fans would be pissed off and the writers—well, they might have skipped this post altogether. And see what you would have missed?


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How can I help? — Frequent Questions

Q: How can I help?
A: Pick an issue and dive in.

It’s no secret: the challenges our country and our world face seem to be multiplying faster than rabbits. Or, to update that analogy to the 21st century, faster than malware-infected bots.

The only way I know to counter the human malware operating in so many people these days is by making personal connections and broadening people’s frames of reference. By talking, and listening. Educating.

Heather McGhee, the president of Demos, told an interesting story on this Monday’s episode of “Pod Save America.” She was speaking on a C-SPAN show one day last year and a viewer called in with an unexpected question. He was scared of black people, he said. How could he deal with this? McGhee, who is a woman of color, gave him some action items (among them: read history; change your news outlets). He embarked on a project to broaden his own horizons, reached out to McGhee via Twitter to thank her. And they struck up a friendship. Who knows how many minds he will change?

Of course, not every racist is open to a conversation like that. Some need a little more overt direction to change. And that’s one of the things the Southern Poverty Law Center does so well. In its 46-year history, it has fought for equity for people of color, LGBT people, students, you name it.

Help — for the Southern Poverty Law Center & for yourself

helpSo when my colleague Emily Levy said she wanted to put together a fund-raiser for the SPLC, I only had one question: How can I help?

She’s gathered together a group of coaches and consultants to offer VIP Days to their clients and pledge a earmark portion of the proceeds for the SPLC. I’m offering two VIP packages for the cause—with a potential donation of $1,200 to help this vital organization continue its work.

Click here for more information about my VIP Day package.

And check out the other offerings here.

Book your package by September 15th and schedule your VIP Day by October 31st. You’ve been meaning to spruce up your creativity, your business, your life. Now you can get the help you want and benefit an excellent cause.

Any questions?

Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Confederate history

Removing Confederate statues has become a pretext for white supremacist and neo-Nazi activity, most memorably in Charlottesville, Virginia, a couple of weeks ago. New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu addressed the situation more clearly and with more moral authority than many better-known politicians.

New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu
Mitch Landrieu, photo by Derek Bridges from New Orleans, United States CC BY 2.0

Mayor Landrieu delivered the speech last May, as his city prepared to remove its last few Confederate monuments, and the folks over at Pod Save America—President Obama’s former speechwriters and communications director—recently called it the best speech on the subject they’ve seen. So I thought you might be interested in my thoughts about what makes this speech so compelling.

Every other week, I do a deep analysis of a piece of writing for the people subscribed to my Weekly What series—a yearlong, self-directed writing program that I’ve offered in connection with my Writing Unbound course. Here are some excerpts from my analysis.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu tells a powerful story

Mayor Landrieu begins with two things I usually caution against: a thank you and a list. As for the thank you, at least it’s brief. But the list is not. And I’m okay with that. The Civil War is usually seen as a black- vs.-white thing or North vs. South. But in New Orleans, nothing is ever that simple. So I love that the Mayor began by naming all the tribes and nations whose people shaped the history of this remarkably polyglot city. Then he continued:

But there are also other truths about our city that we must confront. New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were bought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor of misery of rape, of torture. America was the place where nearly 4000 of our fellow citizens were lynched, 540 alone in Louisiana; where the courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom riders coming to New Orleans were beaten to a bloody pulp.

He faces the “other truths” head on. And notice the details in the description; he doesn’t let his listeners off the hook by glossing over the horrors of slavery. But he also doesn’t indict Louisiana alone—“America was the place where nearly 4000 of our fellow citizens were lynched.” I winced when I got to that last word.

So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth….

“An inaccurate recitation of our past”

Later, he demolishes the argument about historical necessity:

To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.

And in the second decade of the 21st century, asking African Americans — or anyone else — to drive by property that they own; occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse and absurd. Centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place. Here is the essential truth. We are better together than we are apart.

And Mayor Landrieu ends by confronting the charge that removing Confederate monuments “erases history.”

We have not erased history; we are becoming part of the city’s history by righting the wrong image these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations. And unlike when these Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people. In our blessed land we all come to the table of democracy as equals.

If you’d like to read my full analysis, click the green button. It’s a very fine speech. Thank you, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, for your leadership on this issue.

Send me your analysis of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech


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Tina Kelley: A National Monument Crosses Over

Tina KelleyAward-winning poet Tina Kelley wrote this months ago, but it seems even more relevant today. She’s written three poetry collections Abloom and Awry (CavanKerry Press, 2017); Precise; and The Gospel of Galore, winner of a 2003 Washington State Book Award. She co-authored Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope and reported for The New York Times for ten years, sharing a staff Pulitzer Prize for 9/11 coverage. In 2017, she won the Jacar Press Chapbook Competition. Thanks to Tina for being our final guest blogger. I’ll be back from vacation tomorrow—Elaine

A National Monument Crosses Over

by Tina Kelley

“Fuhgeddaboutit,” mother of exiles
muttered, rolling thirty-inch eyes.
Dropped her torch, hiked her skirts,
stepped over to Jersey. With her stride,
three hours to Niagara Falls, Canadian side.

Seidu Mohammed had a rougher trip. In a ten-hour
slog north from North Dakota, in snow waist-high,
frostbite took his fingers off. He feared deportation
from Minnesota to Ghana, where, because he loves
both men and women, they’d kill him. Thin gloves.

“God blessed Canada with good people,” he said,
refugee from the land of the free, land I once loved.

So it’s no wonder “Liberty Enlightening the World” —
her full name — could no longer bear the inscription
asking for homeless and poor masses.  She turned
her francophone sneer and her back to hypocrisy,
headed up Belleville Avenue, past Parsippany,

over the Poconos, across the Southern Tier,
into the embrace of the wise Justin Trudeau,
who tweets love, and “diversity is our strength,”
hashtag WelcomeToCanada, we have more Sikhs
in our cabinet than India does. We don’t do sweeps.

An empty granite pedestal in Upper New York Bay.
Since when are we the people others must escape?

(appeared previously on PoetsSpreadingTheNews.com)

Sarah Cooper: Stressed about work? Quit your job, Donald.

Sarah Cooper
Sarah Cooper
Today’s guest blog comes from the brilliant satirist Sarah Cooper. If you’re still livin’ la vida corporate, her book 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings: How to Get By Without Even Trying will make you laugh at your life. If you’ve escaped from the corporate world—as Cooper did—it will make you laugh at your former colleagues’ lives. Either way: laughing.

Stressed About Work? It Might Be Time to Quit Your Job, Donald

by Sarah Cooper

Are you constantly frustrated about work?

Are you increasingly isolating yourself, yelling at your television and binging on Kentucky Fried Chicken?

Have you surrounded yourself with sycophants who support your idiotic ramblings, enable your bad behavior and lie to the American people for you?

Has your son-in-law been implicated in an ongoing FBI investigation into your collusion with the Russian government?

If so, it might be time to quit your job.

“For some Presidents, when it’s time to leave a job can be quite clear — like when their term is up — but for others, it might not be so obvious,” says Bob Johnson, a career coach and author of You Should Leave Your Job Now, Donald.

Johnson says some presidents know when it’s time for a change, “because they become irritable and paranoid, longing for the life they had before, and ultimately end up sabotaging the entire country.”

Sometimes, people don’t realize they’re unhappy with their job until they admit it in an interview with Reuters, or they realize they aren’t getting to do many of the things they’re really passionate about, like playing golf.

“People who are unhappy at work constantly complain that the media is unfair to them, embarrass themselves on the international stage, and get frustrated that no one will let this whole Russia investigation go,” Johnson says.

Cassie Saunders, founder of Please Quit Your Job Mr. President, Inc., says, “When some people see the signs that it’s time to leave their job, they might try to improve the situation by lying their ass off about how much they’ve accomplished, threatening to abolish the First Amendment, or going into denial by firing the FBI Director. But others are completely unaware of the signals that it’s time to get out.”

If you’re thinking about resigning but aren’t sure, here are 5 signs your job isn’t a good fit for you anymore, Donald.

1. You lack passion. Instead of waking up with a feeling of excitement toward your job, you wake up in the middle of the night and start intimidating witnesses in an ongoing FBI investigation into your ties with Russia.

2. You really dislike the people you work with. You try to work out the problems you’re having with the Media, the FBI, the Justice Department, your own lawyers, Congress, Democrats, Republicans, the American people, Mexico, Canada, North Korea, and China, but sometimes these problems have no solution.

3. Your productivity is suffering. If you used to get 5 rounds of golf done in a day and now you only get in one, or you used to watch Fox News for 14 hours a day but not it’s down to 8, you have to ask yourself: am I making the most of my time?

4. You have poor work-life balance. When you find that you’re spending less time with your family even though you’ve given them all positions in your administration, that could be a sign of poor work-life balance. This is never a sustainable situation.

5. Your ideas are not being heard. Has it gotten so bad you’ve had to hire a team of private lawyers to defend investigations into your Russian ties? When is the last time anyone took your ideas about 3–5 million people illegally voting in the election seriously? Or Obama wiretapping your phone? Or your pitch to get rid of the legislative filibuster? The truth is you’re probably being taken for granted and your skills might be useful elsewhere, like on a moderately successful reality TV show.

Once you realize it might be time to leave your job, just leave. Quit. Life is short. Do some traveling. Do it for yourself. Do it for America. Do it for all of us, Donald. Please.


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Cinematic politics, 1987 — from David Sedaris’s diary

The political situation is far too fraught these days. I’ll leave analysis to the professionals (if you’re worried about North Korea, check out this special emergency episode of Tommy Vietor’s Pod Save the World). So I thought it might be fun—fun! not a word you hear in connection with politics these days—to check out a little cinematic politics circa 1987.

Our guide is David Sedaris. Please forgive him for using the term “hermaphrodite”—that was what we called Intersex people back in the day. If you’ve had a classical education you’ll appreciate the word’s deft combination of the deities Hermes and Aphrodite—but today the people in the community prefer Intersex. That term was not in wide use when Sedaris wrote this diary entry, 30 years ago.

Ah, the diary. I should probably mention that Sedaris has published excerpts from 25 years of his diaries under the title Theft by Finding. I’ve only made my way through 1991 so far, but it’s full of quirky observations like this one.

Cinematic politics, Sedaris-style

cinematic politicsAnd so to the passage in question:

January 18, 1987
Chicago

In the mail we received a video guide of new releases. One movie is called Never Too Young to Die. The copy reads, “A vicious hermaphrodite wants to control the country, and only two people stand in his way. [Only two?] The resulting ‘battle of the sexes’ will blow your mind with a heady mixture of powerful heavy-metal music, state-of-the-art weaponry, martial arts, and espionage that makes this exciting action flick a winner.”

Note: that “Only two?” editorial comment is Sedaris’s. Of course. He continues:

“Times have changed when a hermaphrodite wants to control the country and only two people stand in his way. If he were a black or Hispanic hermaphrodite, he’d probably have a harder time of it.”

You’ve probably noticed that both writers—the anonymous copywriter and Sedaris—assign the “hermaphrodite” a male pronoun. That’s probably because the actor playing “Velvet Von Ragner” was himself a man. And not just any man: Gene Simmons of the band Kiss. I’m surprised Sedaris didn’t mention the other star of the movie—John Stamos. Then again, he may have missed the debut that year of Stamos’s sitcom Full House.

But I promised you sexual politics: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they say in Sedaris’s adopted homeland, France. Sedaris’s observation that “a black or Hispanic [would] probably have a harder time of it” is a classic example of “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

Anyway, as we contemplate the potential destruction of our country if not our world, I thought it might be refreshing to time-travel back to 1987, when the person wreaking the havoc at least had the decency to do it intentionally, with a heavy-metal soundtrack. Stay safe, everyone.


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

Explaining and losing — show, don’t tell

“…there’s a saying in politics: ‘When you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

I just finished reading Al Franken’s book, the modestly titled Al Franken, Giant of the Senate. (It’s a joke; he’s a short man.) And it seemed to me that his old political saying also applies to writing.

“When you’re explaining, you’re losing.” When you explain something to your readers, you lose their attention, you lose their capacity to retain your information. If you’re explaining in your marketing materials, you lose the sale.

“You should eat the steak at Joe’s” vs. “Joe’s serves a steak so tender that I barely needed the knife; once it hit my mouth, it practically melted away on it own accord.”

Which sentence makes you hungrier? And can you tell I had an excellent steak last night? (Though not at “Joe’s,” which exists only in my mind.)

Details! They’re what make Joe’s steak so juicy. And as soon as you hear them, you start to assemble the details into a picture in your mind. It may be a prettier picture for a carnivore than for a vegetarian, but even vegans will subconsciously create a story around Joe’s steak and file it away in their minds.

So let’s see how much you retained—without looking back at the previous paragraphs…

Think about Joe’s steak

What are the first words that pop into your mind?

Explaining vs. making an impact

Explaining makes us writers feel like we’ve accomplished something. There! I told them!
And that’s fine, if the purpose of your writing is to make you feel better. But if you’re trying to get other people to take action, explaining might not cut it.

For instance, some people think marketing means, I’ll tell everyone they need to join my program if they want to be a better writer.

Explaining Writing Unbound, the ideas, skills, and support you needBut effective marketing isn’t about explaining; it’s about showing. So instead of saying, “Register for Writing Unbound and improve your writing,” I might say something like:

Have you ever wished you could dial down the volume on the critical voices in your head and just write?

Most readers will be shouting, “Oh good God, yes!” So I might continue along the lines of:

If you just shouted, “Oh good God, yes!” – hey, I’ve been there too. I know how essential that skill is for writers, so dealing with your critical inner voice is one of the first things we tackle in my Writing Unbound program.

Explaining—”register for my program and improve your writing”—doesn’t invite the reader in. Also, “improve your writing” is a pretty generic claim. In marketing, specifics don’t just help readers paint a picture in their minds, they also make the readers feel like you know and care about what they’re going through. I’ve been in your shoes. I’ve succeeded; I know you can, too.

Al Franken’s right: “when you’re explaining, you’re losing.” It’s true in politics and in “real life,” too.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level or three? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about improvement.

Lisa Murkowski and the power of story

Stories may have saved my life. Millions of people’s lives. So if you’ll forgive one more blog about the healthcare debate—well, debate isn’t the right word since there were no hearings. But you know what I’m talking about. The power of story stiffened some Republican backbones. In this case, Senator Lisa Murkowski‘s.

Lisa Murkowski

Back in early June, Topher Spiro of the Center for American Progress tweeted this excerpt from an unidentified article about a story one constituent told Murkowski. The senator recounted it to the press:

“She just needs to focus on getting her body whole, but she’s got another series (of treatments) to come up and she was saying, I can’t focus on myself … because I’m so worried that something’s going to happen to my health care and I will be labeled with a pre-existing condition and I’m never going to be able to get healthcare again,” Murkowski said. “It’s these types of stories that remind me that, no, the importance of a timeline is not nearly as important as getting this right.”

We don’t have the actual story the cancer patient told to the senator. But look at what Lisa Murkowski retained of it:

  • I’m worried
  • I can’t focus on getting well
  • Afraid of losing my healthcare
  • Afraid of being labeled with a pre-existing condition

Clearly the senator connected emotionally with the story. She remembered the fear; she empathized with the woman’s need to focus on her recovery.

What if Lisa Murkowski had heard this instead?

What would have happened if the patient had said to the senator instead:

“Senator, I have cancer. Please don’t let them take away my healthcare.”

All we have in the first sentence is fact. A devastating fact—no one takes cancer lightly, not even (I suspect) a Republican. But still, there’s nothing there to connect with. No details. No emotion.

And I’d bet it would produce no action. Not even with the “please” in the request.

And while we’re on the second sentence, calls to action need to be positive. Tell someone what you want them to do, not what you don’t want them to do. So, “Please fight hard for Alaska’s cancer patients.” Or “Please tell the Senate we need coverage for pre-existing conditions.”

But whatever you do, tell a story—a specific, emotional story. Stories like that can change the world.


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