Words matter. Use them wisely.

How much do words matter?

Last October, I wrote about a chilling article in The Guardian that asked:

“What happens when political language fails?”

The writer, former BBC director general Mark Thompson, offered an answer…:

“From the fall of Athens to the rise of totalitarianism, observers from Thucydides to George Orwell have associated a breakdown in public language – or rhetoric, to give it a more traditional name – with the failure of democracy, loss of freedom, civil strife and, ultimately, tyranny and murder.”

It’s not just fancy speechifying that’s gone missing in the United States these days. Even in conversation, even when answering questions, our politicians and their spokespeople lie with impunity. Words have often ceased to be meaningful indicators of reality—whether they emanate from the White House or from the Congress.

This administration and their Congressional enablers have done a great deal of damage to our country and to many people—especially the marginalized people—who live here. But it may be that the worst damage they have done is to our language.

Words matter. Or they should.

words matter
Peter Pan and his shadow by Oliver Herford, The Peter Pan Alphabet, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1907, page 39, Public Domain

We can boot the lying bastards out of office—and this past Tuesday’s elections clearly showed that’s the direction we’re headed—but how can we reunite word and meaning?

It’s like sewing on Peter Pan’s shadow: the operation only works if you believe in it. And the problem here is that many people no longer believe what they hear.

In a blog post just before the inauguration, I wrote:

It’s a tough time to be a word person.

With people doubting even long-established facts, the very building blocks of a wordsmith’s trade threaten to become meaningless. It’s as if someone decided that instead of making bricks out of stone—or whatever bricks are made of—we’ll now make them out of papier-mâché and pretend it’s the same thing.

You can stand there shouting about engineering and the immutable laws of nature until you’re blue in the face. But you’re not going to reach the people who’ve decided that facts don’t matter. Until, perhaps, their papier-mâché chimneys go up in smoke.

Oh, who am I kidding? When that happens, they’ll just blame the logs.

Don’t shout. Listen. And Talk.

Shouting won’t help anything. But listening will. And talking face to face, heart to heart.

Conversations won the elections for Democrats last Tuesday, as tens of thousands of people canvassed for their candidates. One activist on a recent episode of Pod Save America said that supporters of Planned Parenthood had knocked on over 300,000 doors in Virginia in recent weeks. And let’s not forget the people across the country who worked the phone banks, calling voters to find out and address their concerns.

Conversations—remember those?

Those conversations worked. And we have to keep having them, and expand the circles of people we reach.

I quoted Neil Gaiman in that “it’s a tough time to be a word person” post.

He said “Words are more important they ever were” because “We navigate the world with words” and

“People who cannot understand each other cannot communicate.”

And people who cannot communicate cannot fix what’s broken about our democracy.

So get talking. Because words matter.


Do you need some practice speaking up at work? Join me for “Say What You Want to Say”—a webinar for women who are ready to lead. Priceless advice from an award-winning business speechwriter: On November 20th, it’s free.

Hitting the word-lottery — David Litt, presidential speechwriter

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.

presidential speechwriterDavid Litt’s new book, Thanks, Obama: My Hopey Changey White House Years (A Speechwriter’s Memoir) is as delightful as its title. It manages to be both funny and informative.

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.


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Katharine Hayhoe — stories drive change

“How can I talk to people who don’t accept the truth about climate change?” That may not be exactly what the audience member asked the dudes from Pod Save America on a recent episode, but it’s close enough. Their answer—again, not verbatim: Stories drive change.

The questioner had asked particularly about climate science: How can her relatives not understand the source of the havoc we are unleashing on our environment—catastrophic hurricanes, fires, flood. So far everything but a plague of locusts.

Usually those encounters go one of two ways:

  1. Are you crazy?
  2. The median temperature of the earth has risen X degrees in the last 20 years.

When’s the last time you had a productive conversation with someone who called you crazy?

I didn’t think so.

And when’s the last time you listened to someone rattle off a string of numbers and didn’t fall asleep? Or start thinking about something more interesting, like when you’re going to run out of clean underwear. Or whether the lettuce on sale will last more than a day and a half.

As I’ve said more than once, if you want people to remember what you’re saying you need to tell a story.

Stories drive change

stories drive change
Katharine Hayhoe and a friend, from her Twitter profile

One of the Pod Save America hosts, Tommy Vietor I think, mentioned a name I hadn’t heard before: Katharine Hayhoe. He said she has the ability to turn facts into stories that connect with people on the other side of the climate change debate. And more importantly, that her stories drive change.

Vietor isn’t the only member of the Katharine Hayhoe fan club:

“Katharine Hayhoe is a national treasure,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. He said that she combined powerful communications skills, world-class scientific credentials and an ability to relate to conservative religious communities that can be skeptical about the risks of a changing climate.

That’s from a 2016 New York Times article about her. So is this:

“…she has found that she gets her science across more effectively if she can connect with people personally. In a nation seemingly addicted to argument as a blood sport, she conciliates. On a topic so contentious that most participants snarl, she smiles. She is an evangelical Christian, and she does not flinch from using the language of faith and stewardship to discuss the fate of the planet.”

Use the language your audience speaks. Connect with the people you’re speaking with. Be human. Be vulnerable. Be authentic. And use concrete examples that everyone can understand.

Can stories drive change—really? Check out the quote from Hayhoe that closes the Times article:

“I don’t believe in climate change,” she said. Belief doesn’t come into it; scientific verification does.

“Gravity doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not,” she said, “but if you step off a cliff, you’re going to go down.”


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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.


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

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?


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.

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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