What the customer wants — inclusion (if the Super Bowl ads are right)

“Listen hard to your customers. (Then listen some more.)”

Translation: Find out what the customer wants. And give it to them.

That particular advice comes from Pat Fallon and Fred Senn’s book Juicing the Orange. I haven’t read the book, but I did read a review of it in The New York Times back in 2006, which is how their “seven steps for creativity” landed in my quotation file.

The other rules, for the record:

“1) Always start from scratch
2) ‘Demand a ruthlessly simple definition of the business problem’
3) Find a ‘proprietary emotion’ you can appeal to. ‘Marketers who favor reason over emotion,’ they write, ‘will find themselves quite literally forgotten.’
4) Think big. Don’t be limited by the budget or the initial challenge.
5) Take calculated risks.
6) Collaborate with others both inside and outside your company to solve the problem.”

All of these, except perhaps the last, resonate with me as a writer. Be original. Boil complex issues down to simple (but sophisticated) explanations. Appeal to the audience’s emotions. Hmm…how to translate “think big”: Write what you feel needs to be written. Don’t second-guess or censor yourself.


what the customer wants is inclusion

But in the aftermath of the Super Bowl, I’m most struck by the ideas of listening to your customers (the audience) and leveraging emotion to convey your message. The video game and movie commercials treated us to a violent, dystopian world—one commercial showed tanks exploding into everyday situations; Tienanmen Square in your very own living room! But the consumer products companies told a story of compassion and inclusion. I’ll take that world, thanks.

The customer wants inclusion

My favorite was Airbnb’s “We accept” ad.

This isn’t just a political statement—it’s also brand positioning for Airbnb, which has faced issues stemming from some of its hosts discriminating against guests. See this piece on the Twitter hashtag #Airbnbwhileblack and this one about a “straight-friendly” host evicting a gay couple.

It’s a challenge for Airbnb, one they seem to have tackled forthrightly. But as discrimination becomes more socially acceptable, they may find they need something stronger than a feel-good advertisement or even a nondiscrimination pledge in their user agreement:

“We believe that no matter who you are, where you are from, or where you travel, you should be able to belong in the Airbnb community. By joining this community, you commit to treat all fellow members of this community, regardless of race, religion, national origin, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age, with respect, and without judgment or bias.”

This is decidedly not the United States the current Republican administration envisions. But it is not what the customer wants — or most citizens, for that matter. Here’s hoping the corporate vision wins this battle.

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“I know you believe that”—the wisdom of Hidden Figures

There’s a lot to love in the movie Hidden Figures. It not only tells the story of three remarkable African American women whose analytical skills enabled the space program to succeed. It’s also an eye-opener for anyone who doesn’t fully understand all that white privilege has handed us over the generations.


If you think police antagonizing African American people is a new phenomenon, feast your eyes on the opening scene, when the women’s car breaks down on the side of a country road. A police car rolls up, lights flashing, and tells them they’ve picked an inconvenient place to break down. As if they had a choice.

If you think the judicial system can settle anything without local support, feast your eyes on the “colored” bathrooms and water fountains, the segregated schools—heck, even the libraries were segregated. And if you wanted to educate yourself on something important, forget about finding the book you need at the “colored” library. As a judge helpfully reminds the audience, this happens after the Supreme Court outlawed “separate but equal” facilities in Brown v. Board of Ed. Also after President Eisenhower overruled the Arkansas governor and directed in the National Guard to escort nine black children into Little Rock’s Central High School. But none of it mattered in Virginia, not back then.

Dorothy Vaughan, one of the Hidden Figures at NASA
Photo courtesy of Dorothy Vaughan’s family, posted on NASA website

For me, the emotional high point of the movie wasn’t John Glenn’s pioneering flight; it was a short encounter in a newly integrated ladies’ room at NASA. The white woman supervisor looks at Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, and says, “I don’t have anything against you.”

And Vaughan replies, kindly, “I know.” She pauses. Is that all she’s going to say? It is not.

In the same tone of voice she adds:

“I know you believe that.”

Spencer has been nominated for an Academy Award. If you ask me, she deserves it on the strength of that line alone.

Hidden Figures and the banality of prejudice

Hidden Figures does an excellent job of not demonizing its main white characters. While they do and say some despicable things, they’re not mustache-twirling villains. They’re not neo-Nazis. They’re just office workers, trying to do something that’s never been done before under an impossible deadline.

But there’s nothing new about their behavior, and surely their parents and grandparents did even worse. They have no concept of how their actions affect the African Americans they work with (who they would never imagine as “colleagues”). In fact they barely even notice them, except by their absence.

Prejudice isn’t always easy to see. Oh, the people being discriminated against see it very clearly. But the rest of society may just mistake it for life. Sometimes prejudice is utterly banal—and that’s when it’s scariest.

So in 2017 when the nice people in what’s left of the United States of America start talking about LGBT people and people of color wanting “special rights”—when the good Christians start talking about how they “love the sinner but hate the sin” and that Muslims are free to practice their religion, elsewhere—when someone tries to identify any group of human beings as somehow less deserving of respect and dignity—let’s start by channeling our inner Dorothy Vaughans: “I know you believe that.”

And then what?

Then tell a story—a real story. If you can touch someone’s heart, you might be able to open their eyes. Hidden Figures does.

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What makes America famous? We get to choose – Song for a Sunday

It’s not the song I thought I’d be writing about today—Harry Chapin‘s “What Made America Famous.”

Harry Chapin wrote the song "What Makes America Famous"
Harry Chapin in concert Photo By Cindy Funk (harry61880) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I went to YouTube in search of his “She Sings Her Song Without Words.” I thought I’d juxtapose the “song without words” with the song without music of the powerful poem Ashley Judd delivered at the Women’s March in Washington last weekend.

But as I was listening to Chapin sing his sweet, very of-the-era love song, I noticed a video in the sidebar called “What Made America Famous.” As a long-haired, guitar-playing teen I was a Chapin fan back in the day. But I couldn’t quite place the song title.

So I clicked on the video and heard something I need to share with you.

It’s a typical Chapin story-song—an eternity at seven minutes long, but the length is part of what makes it work.

The length and the rhythm lull you into complacency as he sings about the mom-and-apple-pie things that “made America famous.” He builds the intensity as he approaches contemporary life, the Vietnam-era world neatly divided between the “us” and “them.” “Us” always being white, middle-class and “them” the hippies, people of color, people stuck at the lower end of the economic spectrum. Disposable people. We don’t know anything about that world today, do we?

Chapin could have ended his song on a hopeful note, a Norman Rockwell picture of comity. But he knows that’s only part of the story. So sit tight ’til the end.

What makes America famous? Our choices

Chapin wrote the song in 1974. A lot has changed in our country since then. Or at least it has seemed that way to those of us in the “us” category. I have no doubt the country will change more before the song marks its 50th anniversary, just two presidential elections from now. But I’m not sure things will get better.

So join Harry in a primal scream:

Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Is anybody there?

And when you’re done screaming. Think about these words from another Chapin song, the words engraved on his gravestone:

Oh if a man tried
To take his time on Earth
And prove before he died
What one man’s life could be worth
I wonder what would happen
to this world

How we answer that question will determine what makes America famous going forward.

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Be courageous — Plan.

Sometimes you know in advance exactly when you’ll have an opportunity to be courageous.

Olympic athletes know the exact minute their contents will start. And they prepare relentlessly. Did you see the video of Michael Phelps in the ready room before one of his races last year?

You get the feeling that nothing could have thrown him off course. He was prepared; he was in the zone.

You know who else prepared to be courageous? Rosa Parks.

A decision to be courageous

Rosa Parks planned how to be courageousRosa Parks didn’t plan to take action on that specific bus on that specific date in December 1955. But she had already given the issue some thought—she and her husband had worked with the NAACP for years. So when the bus driver decided to widen the “whites only” seating and ordered Mrs. Parks to move from her seat, she knew what she needed to do.

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in. I knew someone had to take the first step and I made up my mind not to move. Our mistreatment was just not right, and I was tired of it.” — Rosa Parks

I don’t mean to equate the courage of Michael Phelps and Rosa Parks. The worst thing that happened to Phelps is that his expression launched a thousand memes. And then he went on to win Olympic gold and even more fame. No one was going to throw him in jail—which is, of course, where Mrs. Parks landed.

But I think they both offer some lessons for us, as the United States returns to a time of widespread protest and deepening injustice. (I would love to be wrong about that, but as you read this I’m standing with tens of thousands of people on a street somewhere in Manhattan, so that’s how it feels to me.)

Lessons in courage

  1. Don’t let anybody throw you off your game. And by “your game” I mean your commitment to nonviolent action. Phelps may look like he’s about to murder the South African swimmer who’s trying to intimidate him. But he held his temper and kept his course.
  2. Think before you need to act. Don’t be surprised if you encounter injustice in the world—just deal with it according to the plan you’ve already devised. If you’ve mapped out a set of actions in advance then the only thing you need to figure out in the moment: Do I feel safe enough to put my plan into action? This article from Quartz reminds us:

“It is not selfish to put your own safety first.”

Some resources:

The Quartz article: “How to intervene in a racist attack”

And here’s an illustrated guide on “What to do if you are witnessing Islamophobic harrassment.” Most important point: Ignore the attacker.

And the Anti-Defamation League has some tips on combating prejudice online. Of course, engaging with the bigots isn’t easy—or particularly useful, at least in my recent experience. And your personal safety is just as much of an issue in cyberspace as in whatever passes for “real life” these days.

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Carefully taught – Song for a Sunday

I first heard the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” in an anti-discrimination Public Service Announcement, maybe in the early 1970s. I didn’t know at the time that it came from a musical—South Pacific, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, music by Richard Rodgers. It’s a pretty straightforward denunciation of prejudice, couched in the then-unremarkable white privilege of the writers.

The song denounces those who are afraid of “people whose skin is a different shade” or—this is the one that kills me—”oddly made” eyes. Well it was 1949, after all, and the world was made and run by and for white people, even if the musical was set in Polynesia.

I couldn’t find the PSA—what’s that about, YouTube?—but I found something better. Mandy Patinkin singing it at a September 11th tribute concert, in an arrangement with Stephen Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen.”

children have to be carefully taught to respect othersThe Rodgers & Hammerstein song pounds us over the head with its message, so much so that it could easily get histrionic if the singer invests too much emotion in it. Patinkin sings it with restraint:

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six, or seven, or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate.
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

But Patinkin saves the full range of his emotion for the more nuanced and broader warnings from Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

How do you say to your child in the night?
Nothing’s all black, but then nothing’s all white
How do you say it will all be all right
When you know that it might not be true?
What do you do?

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn

To learn what to be
Careful before you say “Listen to me”
Children will listen…

Carefully taught: The Post-Trump Generation

This week we’ll be inaugurating a president who has spoken openly of registering Muslims and deporting immigrants. To judge from his actions and those of his appointees and most ardent supporters, they will be only the first of many groups targeted.

Patinkin sang this arrangement at a September 11th Memorial Concert a few years ago. But it’s a message we need to hear even more today. Our children are listening. And this generation, too, has to be “carefully taught.”

Can we please just teach them love and respect, once and for all?

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Authenticity in the flesh: Get thee to an AA meeting

Does your client need an AA meeting?Going to an AA meeting could make your client more authentic

Fellow speechwriter and blogger Jane Genova suggests that if your clients doubt the power of authenticity to transfix and transform, take them to an open Alcoholics Anonymous meeting:

“From the get-go, your client will get it: What they will bear witness to is this: Talking from the heart, with the mission of helping other alcoholics, liberates AA speakers from self-consciousness.”

Genova outlines the three-part structure AA expects of its members who speak:

“How it was
The solution, and
How it is now.”

Of course, none of the speeches you’ll hear at an AA meeting is as cut-and-dried as that model suggests. I went to one once, supporting a friend who’d completed a year of sobriety, and all I can say is bring lots of Kleenex. As Genova suggests, people’s authentic stories can be powerfully moving. And if a speaker tries to squeak by without being authentic, the audience will notice.

How would your client like sitting in an audience of people who stop listening to an inauthentic speaker? Genova suggests it might be enough to get them “scared straight,” as it were. To keep them communicating authentically forever and ever, amen.

The AA model in action

Now, you don’t have to go to an AA meeting to find that authentic structure of problem/solution/redemption. Any well-written persuasive speech will employ it.

Take AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson’s speech about pervasive racism in our society. It’s one of the best speeches I’ve heard in ages—here’s what I wrote about it.

Stephenson begins his “how it was” section by talking about his relationship with “one of my closest friends in the world,” an African American doctor and veteran named Chris.

After some of the recent race-related violence, Chris asked to speak to the “nearly all-white congregation” at his church. He told them about growing up in the midst of the racial unrest of the Civil Rights movement. He talked about how today, when he runs in his neighborhood in the mornings, he always carries his driver’s license, so he can prove he lives there.

Stephenson concludes this part of the speech by saying, “I was ashamed that this was all new information to me.” And then he makes the transition to the second part of the AA format—the solution.

“If two very close friends of different races don’t talk openly about this issue that’s tearing our communities apart, how do we expect to find common ground and solutions for what’s really a serious problem?”

The audience cheered and applauded that line. But not as much as they cheered and applauded this one:

“We have to start communicating. And if this is a dialogue that’s going to begin at AT&T, I feel like it probably ought to start with me.”

Standing ovation, mid-speech.

He continued,

“Frankly, I’ve always been confused by some of Chris’s views. But now I get his anger.”

A work in progress

Of course, this speech isn’t a perfect example of the AA model, because the “how it is now” is still very much a work in progress.

The alcoholic can say, “I haven’t had a drink in 60 days.” It’s harder to say, “I haven’t had an unbiased thought in 60 days.” We can control the hand reaching to grab a glass of Scotch; we can’t always control our minds. But opening our eyes to the conscious and unconcious racism and other inequities in the world we live in and create—that’s a start. And that’s where Stephenson goes:

“I’m not asking you to be ‘tolerant’ of each other. Tolerance is for cowards. Being tolerant requires nothing of you but to be quiet and not make waves, holding tightly to your views and judgments without being challenged. Do not ‘tolerate’ each other. Work hard. Move into uncomfortable territory and understand each other.”

A great speech. Authentic and powerful. If your client can speak like that, more power to you both. If not, maybe an AA meeting would help?

Learn to tell your story powerfully. Join me for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate: Write Right to Lead”—Saturday October 29th at 12 noon Eastern, 9 a.m. Pacific.

Great speech — I wish I’d written it!

Great speech from Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T
Although this looks like a link, sadly it is not. Plenty of links to this video in the post, though. Watch the speech!

I found this great speech today. It’s Randall Stephenson, the CEO of AT&T, talking to his Employee Resource Groups (if you’re not familiar with corporate-speak, that means the diverse folks—people of color, LGBT folks, veterans, etc.). He addresses head-on the challenge of racism in our society. And the fact that we white folks have Absolutely No Idea what it means to live as a person of color in this country.

So many business leaders—heck, so many people of all kinds—struggle to talk about this issue. The violence that seems new to the white community, or unprecedented in its scope, is really just newly revealed thanks to the ubiquity of social media. You just can’t beat up people in private anymore. Thank God.

But we need more than just grainy videos of unwarranted attacks to stop this epidemic. We need people—especially privileged white people who wield the leverage of a large corporation—to speak out. Enter, very powerfully, Randall Stephenson.

What makes this a great speech?

I’ll leave a fuller discussion of this speech for another day. I’m all dressed up to go to a client event right now and if I think about this remarkable speech much longer, I’ll completely ruin my makeup.

The really powerful part—the clip that’s been making the rounds of the Internet—starts at 8:36. But it’s worth listening to the speech in its entirety. (And I’m very sorry that the YouTube link won’t let me embed the video here.)

It’s got all the elements of a great speech, the things I always talk about. Watch them in action and notice how they pull you into the story, how you feel hearing them:

  • a personal story
  • a journey to greater understanding
  • a call to action

Have I mentioned it’s a great speech? I surely wish I’d written it myself. (And I don’t say that about many speeches these days.) Congratulations to AT&T, its CEO Randall Stephenson, and his speechwriter, if any.

Spread the word about this one, folks. If more people started thinking and talking this way, our country would be a better (and less scary) place.


(You can read some things I have written about diversity and inclusion here.)

The power of quiet outrage

One of my first jobs after college found me sitting in a small office (a room of my own!) eight hours a day, five days a week, typing up transcripts of interviews. If that sounds boring, well, yes and no. My ID card said “CBS News.” I worked for 60 Minutes.

I remember remarkably few details of my time there. But of the thousands of hours of tape I transcribed, one moment stands out as clear as day. Anything that’s not a correspondent sitting down to interview the subject is called “B-roll.” It’s the stuff they’ll splice in as transitions, or to relieve the visual boredom of an interview. This particular B-roll found the correspondent Diane Sawyer and her subject walking down a street, it might have been 125th Street, in Harlem.

“Look at those men on the corner,” Sawyer said. She noted that since they were hanging around at noon on a weekday, they were clearly unemployed. She asked, “Do you think they’re even trying?”

I never saw the footage that went along with this exchange—I expect no one outside our office ever did—but I imagine her subject stopped dead in his tracks. He must have been staring straight at her as he spit out the next words: “Every. Human. Being. Tries.” He lowered his voice, practically hissing: “Who do you think you’re talking to?”

And that was my introduction to James Baldwin.

Now, I mean no disrespect to Diane Sawyer; she was always perfectly nice to me. And she paid out of her own pocket to take an African American intern along when she interviewed Michael Jordan (the show refused to foot the bill). Besides, she was a reporter—she may have intended the question to provoke Baldwin. Clearly she succeeded.

But that day, James Baldwin taught me the power of quiet outrage. Of standing up for yourself, no matter who you’re talking to.

As a young woman in a business culture still overwhelmingly male, and as a lesbian in a world that at that time very carefully distinguished gay people from “the general population,” this black-gay-American from an earlier generation fascinated me. I read his entire catalog that year: fiction, plays, and essays.

Or I thought I had. I recently heard about another book. Maria Popova, editor of BrainPickings, called it out as the one book she would save if her house were on fire. It’s long out of print, but I have the proverbial “friend in the business”—I had the good sense to marry someone who works at one of the country’s largest libraries. And so the moment I submit the client assignment that’s eaten my last 10 days, I plan to eavesdrop on a recorded, nearly eight-hour-long conversation Baldwin had with the anthropologist Margaret Mead in 1970, published under the very ’60s-chic title A Rap on Race.

Many people right now—my clients included—are struggling to express their outrage…I was going to say “at recent events,” but it wouldn’t take too much effort to connect the recent murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling to a string of others, stretching back months, years. Decades?

It’s easy to think nothing has changed in the nearly 50 years since Baldwin and Mead had their conversation. But there’s at least one important difference: Social media now allow us to turn what in the 1970s might have been merely local news (if that) into national and international outrage. Making these atrocities visible is essential, but we need words to go with these pictures, forceful and persuasive words, so that people who’ve never been oppressed, who’ve never had to worry about whether their mere appearance will get them killed, can understand the horror of having their fellow citizens put them in that situation.

I’m hoping James Baldwin will help me find the words to shape my clients’ quiet outrage, and my own, into something useful. I’ll keep you posted.