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.

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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Values that resonate with you and your audience

It’s hard to “add value”—our topic yesterday—if you don’t know what your values are. Before you sit down to write your next communication, spend some time thinking about it.

Take a piece of paper and make three columns, headed ME, OUR BRAND, OUR AUDIENCE. And then set a timer for 10 minutes and write down everything you can think of.

  • What do you need to live a meaningful life?
  • What would you do even if no one paid you to do it—and, more importantly, why?
  • What kinds of things never get bumped off your to-do list (and why)?
  • How do you want to relate to people?
  • How do you want people to relate to your brand?
  • What one adjective do you want in people’s minds when they hear about you? Your organization?

Evaluating your values

If you’re living in pretty close alignment to your values, you should find many of the same words popping up on all of the lists. Congratulations! But you might also find some surprises.

Say you’re a fairly laid-back person, but one thing that drives your audience is urgency. You might have to meet them halfway on that—unfurling from your serene mental lotus position to talk about a pressing issue. Or if that feels like too much of a deviation from your personal brand, deputize someone else to talk about the crisis in terms the audience can relate to.

Or you might be a super-serious person, but your audience enjoys a touch of humor. (For me, that’s always a given.) Until you learn to loosen up a little—do it right and people will respect you more for it, believe me—it doesn’t hurt to have someone with a more playful nature introduce you at an event. Your very own warm-up act.

My own values—in no particular order—include integrity, humor, respect, commitment, generosity, and excellence. I under-promise and over-deliver. I’ve structured my business around these values, and I know they resonate with my audience. In fact, one of the people who listened to my podcast interview with Joan Garry as much as told me that when she emailed me about the free gift I offered:

A thank you note to me mentioned one of my values: generosity.

There—right there in the first sentence—one of my values: Generosity. My communications must be doing something right…and yours can too.

“Bank of Evil”?

The New York Times tells us that Wall Street is hiring again.  But don’t break out the party hats and $2,000 bottles of Champagne just yet.  Wall Street has a reputation problem: Most firms will ignore it, but the smart firms will acknowledge and address it.

Yes I know, I know – Wall Street has a reputation problem every five or six years.  This is probably the third such cycle I’ve lived through since I started working in financial services in the late ’80s.  Back then, the punchline was a survey on trustworthiness.  The good news, Wall Streeters were not the least trusted group in the nation; the bad news, they placed lower than the KKK.

How far has anti-Wall Street sentiment penetrated the public discourse in the current cycle?  I had occasion to sit through the animated feature Despicable Me this weekend (save yourselves – don’t do it) during which the evil genius, seeking to finance his dastardly plan, visits the bank to secure a loan.  Not surprisingly, the sign over the door read:

“Bank of Evil”

More surprising was the all-too-legible subhead:

“Formerly Known As Lehman Brothers”

Does it really matter what the movie-going public thinks?  Unlike consumer products companies, Wall Street firms believe they don’t need to curry favor widely.  After all, their business model doesn’t depend on millions of people buying a few dollars’ worth of products; it depends on a few people (investment managers) buying millions of dollars’ worth of products.

But there’s another constituency eyeing Wall Street: the government.  Elected officials – and the regulatory agencies they control – are extremely sensitive to popular sentiment.  As the country gears up for the political fisticuffs of a midterm election, you can expect to see financial services executives on the hot seat.

The best way to handle this onslaught of negative publicity?  Don’t fight it, roll with it.  If there was wrongdoing – or perceived wrongdoing – admit it.  That’s what I advised Bankers Trust CEO Charlie Sanford to do when some of his derivatives traders were in the spotlight, and The New York Times approved.  Then find something positive your firm does and talk it up.

Making money isn’t intrinsically evil. Without financial services firms, the world’s economy would grind to a screeching halt.  Someone needs to tell this story, honestly and compellingly.