Numbers don’t bore people; “numbers people” bore people

There are two kinds of storytellers in this world: numbers people and emotion people. Regular readers of this blog know I am a strong proponent of the second camp.

Well, “camp” implies some sort of militarized division—an uncrossable line. In fact, speakers must be comfortable crossing that line.

Since the audiences we reach are also made up of numbers people and emotion people, we emotion-based writers need to incorporate some facts (numerical or otherwise) to convince the fact-seekers in the audience. And the fact-based folks need to incorporate emotion. Because emotion carries a story forward. Without it, you’re left with only a laundry list. And who wants to listen to that?

I was reminded of this yesterday during the longest half-hour I’ve spent in years. The rector of my church—a wise and wonderful writer—was on vacation. They’d hired one of those numbers people to sub for her.

Numbers people can turn even an emotional subject to dust

numbers don't bore people; people bore peopleThe Old Testament reading gave us the Ten Commandments. A fine story. He focused on “you shall not murder”—the current translation—and pivoted to talk about the shooting in Las Vegas and gun violence in general. Fine.

But did he talk about the morality of raining down death and destruction on innocent concert-goers? Reader, he did not—not really. Oh, he talked about death and destruction all right. He recited a bunch of numbers. I think you’d hear fewer at an Accountants convention. At ten years’ worth of Accountants conventions.

I didn’t capture all of the numbers he threw at us—I didn’t start taking notes until I realized I wanted to blog about this. But here’s a partial list:

  • # of American deaths in all wars
  • # of American deaths in the Vietnam War
  • # of American deaths in the Civil War

And then the annual statistics:

  • # of gun-related deaths in the U.S.
  • # of gun-related suicides in the U.S.
  • # of gun deaths in Canada
  • # of gun deaths in England
  • # of gun deaths in Australia
  • # of gun deaths in Japan

No stories, just the raw numbers. It was Sermon by Google.

He made occasional attempts at audience involvement by asking “do you know how many gun deaths in [fill in the blank]?” Someone would gamely throw out a number and he’d declare them to be wrong. Then he’d spit out the correct answer and move on.

The thing is, he had at least one story he could have told. He mentioned briefly that a distant relative of his had a nephew injured in the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. How much more powerful would it have been to focus on that young man’s awful journey and tell us some specifics about how the gun violence had impacted his family?The priest gave us the Cliff Notes version of that story, but completely devoid of emotion.

The challenge for religious leaders

Now, priests are in a difficult position when they talk about issues of policy and politics. Until the mega-churches succeed in changing the tax code, religious institutions are still barred from discussing politics. He got around that by asking periodically “What would you do?” or saying “You’ll have to make up your own mind.”

After he was through with the numbers, he did tell some stories. He talked about the former trader of enslaved people who realized the evil he was perpetrating and ended up becoming an Episcopal priest and writing the ubiquitous hymn “Amazing Grace.” And about how the benefactor behind the Nobel Prizes invented dynamite. And about how the Wright Brothers regretted that governments repurposed their invention as a killing machine.

But he didn’t incorporate the stories into any kind of narrative. He treated them the same way he treated the gun death numbers—turning great material for stories into what I can only describe as “word lists.”

Don’t just talk; move people

Even with the constraints on making a political stand, that priest could still have constructed a moving sermon. First, he could have pared the statistics down to two or three meaningful ones. And instead of just announcing the numbers, he should have set them in context:

“The shooter in Las Vegas killed nearly 60 people. That’s ten times the number of gun-related murders in Japan in all of last year.”

Then tell a story—if he didn’t have a distant relative injured in a mass shooting, he could have talked about any death (surely he’s experienced one or two in his time as a priest). If you didn’t have any personal experience with violent death or injury, compare it to something you do have experience with:

“My mother died of cancer. It took six months for the disease to kill her, and we used that time to have frank conversations that helped ease the loss. The people killed in Las Vegas were ripped from their families—no preparation, no warning. No final goodbyes.”

And instead of just asking “What would you do?”

“Ask yourself as a Christian, someone committed to living the values we express here in this place every week. Is this the world you want to live in? A world where people get gunned down in the street and we pray for them and go back to our insular lives?”

The sermon the priest gave felt more like an outline of a sermon—fact-filled but pointless. If you’re going to ask people to invest their precious time in listening to you, you have a responsibility to say something. Even if you can’t express an opinion openly, you can leverage emotion and tell a memorable story.

And please—please, don’t ever assume that numbers can substitute for emotion.

Are you confident enough to create? Free webinar tonight (Oct 9th) at 6pm. Register here.

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

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 do I know what to cut — Frequent Questions

Q: How do I know what writing to cut?
A: Start with the boring parts.

Elmore Leonard is one of my favorite writers. He’s famous for his novels, of course, but I’ve never read a word of them. No, I’m an Elmore Leonard fan because of his advice about writing. Particularly this gem:

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

He continues:

“Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.”

Of course he’s talking about fiction: that’s his wheelhouse. But the advice applies to nonfiction as well. And especially to business writing.

Elmore Leonard knows what to cut

cut wellNow, a business speaker is unlikely to break into an extended discussion of the weather in mid-speech, but she may go off on a tangent. Something occurs to her in the moment and because it interests her she assumes it will interest her audience. Trust your preparation (one reason it pays to rehearse) and dance with the speech that brung ya. You don’t want to be accused of “perpetrating hooptedoodle,” do you? Cut the ad libs.

When you’re reading, do you enjoy encountering long paragraphs of dense prose? They’re hard to get through, aren’t they? Well, they’re even harder for audiences listening to a speech. So break it up. Figure out the main idea you want to leave your audience with and concentrate on that. Would you rather have them grasp one concept thoroughly than hear five and forget them all? Cut the extraneous stuff; focus on what’s essential.

And no lists! If you’re tempted to include a list, think about it. Hard. And then cut it. Yes, completely.

But I have to list my clients, you may be thinking. That’s my social proof!

Well, what’s important about the clients you’ve worked for? Instead of listing company names, tell stories about the work you’ve done for one or two clients.

Just as readers don’t skip dialogue, listeners don’t skip stories. Especially stories that resonate with them. Stories that move them to laughter or to tears are my favorites. But if you can interrupt their thought processes even for a moment, get them to think about old concepts in new ways, that’s a win.

Whether you’re writing a speech or an article, after you’ve got the first draft down, go through it from the audience’s point of view. Is there anything confusing? Anything that doesn’t directly enhance the reader’s or listener’s understanding of your main idea? Hooptedoodle. Cut it.

And thank Elmore Leonard for helping your business writing to shine.

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.

How to make an impact — great advice from Avery Blank

Avery Blank
Avery Blank, LinkedIn profile picture

Avery Blank’s Forbes article on how to make an impact is the little black dress of business advice: It works just about everywhere.

The article’s title points it to a specific audience:

How To Make An Impact At A Conference, Even If You Aren’t The Speaker

But the advice she offers can apply to just about anyone: People new to the business world. Writers new to blogging and other forms of content creation. Professionals unsure about how to get their colleagues to listen them in meetings. In fact, Avery Blank’s advice sounds a lot like the advice I give my clients when they speak. So onstage or off, these tips will serve you well.

The first one that caught my eye was

“4. Ask one question, not two.

If you want to make an impact, less is more. The more you say, the less people will remember what you said.”

Identify the core idea you want to address. And articulate it concisely.

“5. Share a brief, personal story.

…Personal stories make an impact on people. They elicit feelings that connect and bind people together. Stories hold the power of creating common ground.”

Create common ground and people are much more likely to connect with you. And you must find a way of connecting emotionally—authentically—with your audience if you want them to a) remember what you say and b) act on it.

Avery Blank says step up and own your ideas

Okay, she doesn’t say that it so many words, but that’s how I translate her first three bits of advice:

1. Raise your hand.

2. Stand on your two feet.

3. Say your name.

Blank means literally raise your hand, stand up, and identify yourself. But these things also work very well as metaphors. Pitch yourself for opportunities as they arise. Make yourself visible and make sure everyone knows who’s coming up with all those great ideas.

Avery Blank’s final point is also about connecting:

“7. Look at others in the room, not just the speaker.

…Take the opportunity to connect with the audience….The remarks or questions that add the most value are those that others can learn from or connect with. If you want to make an impact, speak to benefit others, not just you.”

“Speak to benefit others”—I added the emphasis above because that’s the key to everything. Whenever you communicate, whatever you communicate, always keep the audience in mind. Address their needs, stir their feelings, inspire their action.

If you can do that, it won’t matter whether you’re the headliner onstage or the person sitting in alone in the very back row: People will remember you.

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

Adventures in ‘Merica: Appetite Lost (apologies to Milton)

My friend Robyn and I had dinner at a fancy steakhouse in Phoenix on Thursday—my gift to myself for completing the 365 days of writing (which had grown to 367 by Thursday). We thought we were in America but halfway through dinner it became apparent that we’d slipped into ‘Merica, that mythical land of, by, and for white folks. It probably shouldn’t have shocked me. But it did.

Two retirement-age, straight, white couples sitting next to us started talking about someone they knew: “She’s Indian,” one of the men said. I didn’t hear any malice in his voice, more wonder that no one else had this information. But his companions didn’t quite grasp it, so he explained further: “She comes from India.”

“Oh!” This information surprised the woman with him. She said, “Gosh, she’s so well-spoken.”

My hands flew to my mouth and stayed there until I was sure I woudn’t make a scene. Robyn and I sat in stunned silence. It was like a car wreck on the highway: I wanted to hear the rest of their conversation, and at the same time, I’d already heard more than enough.

The second woman at the table took on the air and posture of an expert, spreading her arms like a politician on the stump as she said: “This is America; we need to be the best.” Okey-doke, no doubt about her political allegiance. I coudn’t tell whether their Indian acquaintance was acceptable to the expert—seeing as how the Indian woman was so well-spoken and all—or whether her presence within our borders somehow prevented Americans from being “the best.”

Eventually the shock passed and Robyn and I resumed our conversation. For the record, we are both well-spoken too.

Elsewhere in ‘Merica

Earlier in the day, as my fellow conference-goers and I finished up our boxed lunches, the sound system, which had been set to “annoying pop” for days suddenly started playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Loudly. A flag waved in closeup on the flatscreen monitors flanking the stage as an older man with a microphone instructed us to stand because we were going to sing the National Anthem.

I stood to the side, gaping in disbelief. A guy I’d eaten lunch with sidled up to ask what was going on.  I said perhaps we were about to start playing baseball.

Do you want to guess what the man onstage did after he finished bleating out the National Anthem?

He tried to sell us something.

The Anthem was nothing more than a gimmick to silence the crowd and get their attention. And of course it worked. But it also generated a ton of ill-will among the true patriots there. People who see the National Anthem as more than an aid to making a quick buck. But that’s life in ‘Merica, too.

I’ll bet the Indian immigrant has more respect for the rituals of American life than those older white dudes. But in ‘Merica, white men get to decide what (if anything) constitutes decorum, which traditions they will honor and which they will flout.

You know what would make America “the best”? Let’s deport all the ‘Mericans. I know just who to start with. We can get along just fine without them.

Great way to express gratitude—a pro tip for speakers

one way to express gratitudeIf I’ve given my regular readers the impression that I hate “thank yous,” I apologize. I love it when speakers express gratitude—just not at the beginning of a speech.

You never want to give your audience an excuse not to listen to you. And what says “I’m not talking to you right now” better than taking three minutes to lavish thanks on 0.01% of the people present. That’s why I tell my clients—and my writing students—to integrate their thank yous into the body of a speech. Find a way that they can add value to what you’re saying.

Here’s how I used the technique at the Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference last month.

Step 1—the set-up

I talked about how and why speakers shouldn’t open with a list of thank yous.

“When you get called on in a meeting, do you stand up and say, ‘I’d like to thank John for calling on me. And Josh for getting the bagels. And, Margie—great PowerPoint!’ Of course you don’t; you’d be laughed out of the room. People in a meeting want to hear your ideas. Your audience at a speech does too.”

Still, it’s appropriate to thank your hosts. And I said I would—when it would add value to my presentation.

Step 2—the recall

Maybe 10 minutes later, I reminded the audience that I promised to thank the college. After a beat, I said:

“No, I’m not going to do that yet. But you’re all waiting for it, right? That’s because I’ve created Mystery.”

And I discussed the importance of creating a sense of mystery when you tell a story. Chris Anderson, in his book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, talks about the power of framing your speech like a “detective story.”

Step 3—the surprise

Toward the end of my speech, I told a story about a meaningful experience I’d had at Smith, something profound I learned that’s served me well throughout my career. I showed a photo of the professor who taught me the lesson. He’s still teaching, all these years later, and his students and former students let out a small cheer.

“…And I would like to thank Smith for bringing me back here today so I could share this story with you.”

And the audience broke out into laughter and spontaneous applause.

As one woman told me the next day,

“We knew you were going to do it. You told us to expect it. But we never saw it coming.”

Express gratitude memorably

How did I get there?

Well, you can pretty much never go wrong when you use the Rule of Three: aim for a laugh on the third repetition of something. Could I have thanked Smith when I discussed thank yous the first time? Probably. I could definitely have done it the second time—but I enjoyed faking out the audience. I worried that by the third time the “thank you” would be as obvious as an 18-wheeler barreling down the highway. But apparently not.

Why not? How was I able to sneak the final set-up for my thank you into the speech? Because I embedded it in a story. And that story fit seamlessly into the body of my speech.

That’s what I mean by adding value with every element of your speech. By the time I got around to the obligatory thank you, it served three purposes:

  1. Express gratitude
  2. Highlight an important aspect of my Smith experience
  3. Demonstrate a speech technique

Your “thank you” might not accomplish all three of these things—I was fortunate to be speaking about how to give a great speech—but it can definitely do more than just express gratitude to specific people.

How can you use your gratitude to enhance your audience’s experience or their understanding of your material? It takes more thought up front, but your audience will remember—and appreciate—you for it.

Shape your stories to make them memorable—discover how in my hands-on editing workshop. Click here and I’ll let you know when we launch.

How is business humor like broccoli? – Frequent Questions

Q: How is business humor like broccoli?
A: Some people hate it, but it’s really, really good for you.

how is broccoli like business humor?I am not a fan of cruciferous vegetables on my dinner plate. But I am a staunch advocate of humor in business communications.

Humor gets people’s attention. It helps your audience connect with you—and that connection makes them much more receptive to your ideas.

Got a complex or unfamiliar idea to explain? The best way to do it is to tie your idea to something your audience already understands. Draw an analogy. Tell a story. If it’s a funny story, all the better.

Business humor: It’s not stand-up comedy

I understand why some people feel wary of humor in a business context. We’ve all cringed through enough inept instances:

  1. The speaker who’s been told “Always open with a joke” and picks something random out of a cheesy joke book
  2. The speaker whose “joke” uses stereotypes that may have gotten a laugh 30 years ago but only offend now
  3. The speaker who confuses this business opportunity with an audition for Saturday Night Live
  4. The speaker so wooden that even a funny joke sounds a recitation of the balance sheet.

If these were the only associations I had with “business humor,” I’d run away from it too. Screaming.

So what’s wrong with those pictures?

  1. Your humor has to relate to your subject.
  2. The bounds of cultural acceptability shift over time. Before you tell an old story, check it against the current social climate. Does it trade on stereotypes? Does it demean any person or group? If you answered “yes” to either of those questions, throw it out and start over again.
  3. Successful standup comedians aim for 4-6 laughs per minute. Fortunately for the business speaker, one or two well-timed jokes in the first minute will suffice. Aim for a laugh as soon as possible in your presentation—but tie the humor to your topic as soon as possible after that. Too many laugh lines could detract from your message or your personal brand.
  4. If don’t feel comfortable telling jokes: Good news—you don’t have to. A humorous story will do just as well. In fact, if you can share a bit about yourself, your life, your observations, in the course of that humorous story, even better.

Not a comedian—a communicator

The purpose of business humor is not to turn you into a comedian. It’s to turn you into a communicator. Dust your ideas with a sprinkling of humor and the audience will listen to them and—according to British neuroscientist Sophie Scott—even understand them better. It’s the neurological equivalent of sneaking broccoli into a chocolate brownie.

Scott wrote a piece for the BBC called “10 things you may not know about laughter.” She calls laughter:

“…a form of communication, not a reaction.

The science of laughter is telling us that laughter is less to do with jokes and more a social behaviour which we use to show people that we like them and that we understand them.”

Sadly, I can’t embed the video of the BBC’s report on Professor Scott. But do click over to the article and watch it for yourself. She reminds us that laughing together unites people.

So do you want to get your audience on the same page, and help them understand your idea? Make ’em laugh.

And you don’t nearly have to work as hard as Donald O’Connor.

Casual remarks in print — regrets, I’ve had a few

I remember the horror of seeing my casual remarks reproduced in print for the first time. It was back in my early days as a singer (yes, I have a not-so-secret life) and the interviewer asked me how I’d gotten started. I talked about my high school musical and added, “I was the lead—of course.”

casual remarks about one's early "stardom" can backfire
Yes, that was me once.

I was joking. Believe me, there was nothing inevitable about my high school stardom; in fact, until about 15 minutes before they posted the cast list, someone else had been slated to take my role. (And boy was she pissed.) In person, that “of course” was self-deprecating. But it gave the writer, who had clearly taken a dislike to me, the opportunity to skewer me in print. Which he promptly did.

It was a lesson I needed to learn. And I’m just glad I got to learn it in a tiny neighborhood publication, back when nothing got archived on the internet, rather than, say, The New York Times today.

Casual remarks: a checklist

Here are four things to think about when unleashing the folksiness I wrote about yesterday or making casual remarks in what might not be a casual situation:

Audience: You need to think about more than how your words will play to the first audience. You need to consider how subsequent audiences will react to them. Especially in the internet age, content can migrate across platforms easily and quickly.

Editing: Can your words be taken out of context or filtered in an unflattering light? If a self-deprecating comment slips out, call attention to it. Try to avoid sarcasm. You’ve probably experienced how poorly it translates in email. It can be even worse in an interview or an article someone might write about a speech you’ve given.

Appropriateness: We all love to tell old stories, but review your mental story bank from time to time to make sure it still fits the prevailing sensibility.

People: It’s probably best to avoid folksy comments that refer to human beings. I recently used the standard colloquial phrase “she’s your gal” in a blog and a friend gently reminded me that the world doesn’t hear the word “women” used nearly often enough. It’s a fair point. So you don’t have to be an 82-year-old billionaire dude to misread changes in the Zeitgeist. Even a fairly “woke,” longtime feminist like me can do it.

Seriously…it’s still okay to be funny

Keep your sense of humor—these days, laughter feels like the crocus leaves poking through the snow of our lives: an unexpected and welcome sign that maybe beauty and grace will return to the world some day.

Just don’t use your folksy language to hurt someone. The reputation you damage might be your own. And, almost as bad, you could step on your message, too.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be better at writing than at Candy Crush? The Bennett Ink 90-Day Writing Challenge—it’s time to get serious.

How folksy is too folksy? Frequent Questions

Q: How can I tell if I’ve gotten too folksy?
A: Folks will stop laughin’—and stop listening, too.

Here’s the full Q from our correspondent this week:

I’m a straight-shooter, tell-it-like-it-is kind of person. Sometimes I think that comes on too strong, so I use folksy language to soften the edges. But how can I tell if I’ve gone too far? How folksy is “too folksy”?

First, let me just acknowledge what we’re all thinking. Okay, maybe you’re not thinking it because you didn’t just have to type it, like, five times in a row. But “folksy” is one strange word. Say it out loud. Now say it again. Don’t you want to shout, “Buy another vowel, dude!”

Is that what you mean by “folksy”?

  • the gratuitous Valley Girl “like”
  • the pop culture reference (the TV game show Wheel of Fortune runs the world’s only known vowel marketplace)
  • the hipster pronoun “dude”

Any one of these might cause my starchier friends in academia to toss their mortarboards at me. (By the way, that’s not folksy; it’s a lively, descriptive sentence.) And while I think the paragraph is perfectly fine—no surprise, since I wrote it—I wouldn’t subject readers to such a high concentration of slang unless I were writing satire.

be folksy, but not too folksyBe folksy but focused

So where’s the line between compelling prose and folksiness?

Imagine you’re telling a story about something that happened to you. Would you tell it to your parents any differently than you’d tell it to your long-time best friend? How about a business colleague? Our internal filters automatically adapt the language and tone for each of these audiences.

You want to invite the reader or listener in, but you also want to keep the focus on your message. Too much slang or informal language can become a distraction. Warren Buffett, who’s earned a reputation as a kind of populist storyteller—the Will Rogers of billionaires—miscalculated his folksiness in a recent interview.

At the beginning of her Huffington Post article about the incident, Emily Peck acknowledged,

“…the Berkshire Hathaway CEO has cultivated a folksy manner and it’s kind of refreshing when a CEO isn’t a jargon-spewing automaton.”

It is refreshing. Part of Warren’s appeal as a communicator is that he uses analogies and stories to convey sophisticated ideas. But one challenge with relying on folksy stories—especially old folksy stories—is you’ve got to keep them fresh. And you’ve got to be aware of cultural shifts.

The story that provoked laughter 20 years ago may provoke anger today. And that’s what happened when Warren trotted out an old story that used women as the object of the joke. In another era, most people probably heard it as a humorous observation about the challenges of romance. Today’s audiences hear it as making light of date rape.

Big difference there.

What changed? Well, in “another era,” women’s voices were not so amplified in the media. The top three Google hits on this story—from HuffPo, Mashable, and Business Insider, all carry women’s by-lines. And society has evolved in its understanding of date rape, even if the justice system hasn’t always kept pace.

Raise your hands, though, if you remember what Warren had been talking about, what action he was trying to explain with his ill-fated folksy story? You can’t. Exactly. The folksiness distracted from his message.

Write better when you write more often. The Bennett Ink 90-Day Writing Challenge—it’s time to get serious.

What the audience wants. (Hint: It’s not you.)

Fresh off a great session with the folks in my 12-week writing program, talking about what the audience wants, and I run into this helpful gem from

4 Common Mistakes To Avoid In Job Interviews

What do job interviews have to do with writing? Not much.

But what do job interviews have to do with delivering what the audience wants? Absolutely everything. Job interviews are all about the audience—the people you want to hire you.

Yet most interviewees walk into the situation assuming it’s all about them. As a certain elected official might say: “Sad!”

Your audience at an interview doesn’t care that your current boss is a certifiable narcissist. In fact, as writer Ashley Stahl points out, talk trash about anything and you might as well tattoo a giant, red NOPE on your forehead. (Seriously, would you want to be the next boss of someone who’s got a track record of complaining about her bosses?)

Focus on the audience and you’ll avoid committing what Stahl calls “job interview suicide.”

give the audience what the audience wantsWhat the audience wants — it’s not what you think

I understand why you think the audience wants to hear about you. Whether you’re interviewing for a job or giving a speech, they did invite you to talk with them.

But what the audience really wants in just about any situation is to hear about themselves and what you can do for them.

As Stahl writes:

“Too often I hear about job seekers getting caught up in sharing context about their day-to-day [Note: it’s not about you!], and as a career coach I beg them to focus on their achievements.”

She advises her clients to prepare two bullet points about their accomplishments in each job they’ve held and to:

“…make sure to share at least one of your achievements as they relate to the job you’re interviewing for.”

That’s my emphasis added. Translation: Think about what your audience wants to hear. Show them you’ve considered their needs by filtering your experiences through their lenses, not just yours.

Frame your story in a way that people in the audience can see themselves in it. It’s not about what you accomplished—it’s about what you learned, how you grew, what impact your work had on your company or your clients. And don’t expect statistics to do all the heavy lifting for you. Data points mean nothing unless you can frame them in human terms.

So talk about about the results you got for your company; people in business like results. But also talk about the emotional impact your work has had. Help your audience see how the things you do make the world a better place. That’s not just you tooting your own horn; that’s you offering information your listeners can adapt to fit their own lives or business situations.

Be yourself—it’s the only choice you have

Very few people are the first in the world to do something. Chances are that whatever you’ve done, your audience has already met people who’ve done the exact same thing—especially in a job interview, where they talk to many people with virtually identical skill sets. But you can guarantee that no one else they’ve interviewed is you. So your best option—in fact, your only option—is to be yourself.

Stahl writes:

“In a world where our workspace can often demand that you’re ‘putting on a face,’ you can set yourself apart with one unique quality, and that’s authenticity.”

For interviews Stahl recommends “talking to the prospective [employer] as if they’re a distant family friend.” That frame makes sense to me for an interview: it builds in some distance that can keep you from sharing Too Much Information.

I often advise people writing speeches for themselves to imagine they’re talking with a colleague—and make sure it’s a colleague you like! That generally helps eliminate some of the stiffness an inexperienced speaker (or speechwriter) might feel.

During your first prep session, pull up a chair and tell your imaginary colleague some stories related to the topic of your speech. Stories about your work, about your education, about the time you realized this was the profession you were destined to follow, about the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you on the job. Record the ramblings and then sort through them the next day. Not everything will be usable in your speech, but the best anecdotes will stand out. And they’re stories that nobody but you can tell.

Just keep your audience’s perspective in mind when you tell them.

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.