How…? What can we…?— Frequent Questions

Q: Who the…? How..? What can we…?

A: I know, I know.

My friends have been doing a lot of sputtering lately. I hear a lot of half-finished sentences, a lot of questions trailing off into incredulous silence. Someone seems to have taken the cosmic dial marked “absurdity” and cranked it all the way to the right. What can those of us still grounded in reality do about it?

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.

The Brits must have had some questions about how they managed to lose the Revolutionary WarIf it seems like the world has turned upside down, that’s only because it has. Or it’s well on its way. And so I’m reminded that the song the British played when they finally surrendered to George Washington’s army was called “The World Turned Upside Down.” That feeling of unreality marked the start of our nation; I hope it doesn’t also mark the end of it.

[Speaking of pesky facts: Wikipedia says this story may be apocryphal, as there’s no contemporary evidence of what music was played.]

I’ve just started reading Neil Gaiman’s essay collection, The View from the Cheap Seats. His 2013 essay called “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming” offered lots of prescient advice:

“There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a postliterate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but these days, those noises are gone: words are more important than they ever were.”

Why? Because “We navigate the world with words” and

“People who cannot understand each other cannot communicate.”

I soon proved that point myself.

My Breakfast With a Racist

On my way home from church on Sunday, I took myself out to brunch at my favorite local diner. That’s where I met the racist. Well, “met” in the sense that he popped up in my Facebook feed. Since I was reading the Gaiman book on my phone, I saw the notification at once. And I was in the mood to ask questions.

Yesterday, an acquaintance of mine posted the Washington Post article about the Trump Administration having “fired” the head of the DC National Guard, effective the moment Trump is sworn in. While we were collectively scratching our heads about why anyone would fire a security professional in the middle of a high-security event, someone on the thread commented that “everyone knows” the Washington Post is “fake news.”

In the past, I’ve avoided engaging in political debates with people I don’t know. But not talking doesn’t get us closer to a solution. So I decided to try something: I asked a question:

“I’m just wondering—honestly wondering—what causes you to think the Washington Post is ‘fake news.’ The paper has been around for well over a century and has a distinguished history of reporting, including 47 Pulitzer prizes. I’m not being snarky or sarcastic. I would truly like to know what qualities convince you that a news source is accurate and what convinces you that a source is fake. Thanks.”

Sadly, I never got an answer. Today someone else started up on the same thread, refuting the claim that Breitbart is a “white supremacist” news organization. He asked for examples of white supremacist content and people obliged by posting links some of the vilest racist screeds on the site. Still he insisted they weren’t “white supremacist.”

It seemed another question was in order. I posted, “Perhaps we should ask you for your definition of ‘white supremacist.'”

He responded:

“A white supremacist is someone who believes whites are superior to the other races, and should therefore rule. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood is probably the most famous white supremacist in US history.”

So in his definition it’s okay to deny civil rights to black people, LGBT people, people of different religions…as long as you don’t also believe “whites are superior to the other races, and should therefore rule.”

And notice how he tried to pivot the conversation to an entirely different topic—Margaret Sanger’s racism. He later tried to paint the entire Planned Parenthood organization as being as reprehensibly racist as its long-dead founder. See this NPR “fact check” for the, well, facts.

Well, I suppose there are parallels. The original Mr. Breitbart is dead, and by some accounts his organization has become even more reprehensible than he was. This article in the Los Angeles Times last summer quoted a former Breitbart editor:

Breitbart’s chairman, Steve Bannon, has turned the site “into Trump’s personal Pravda,” editor at large Ben Shapiro, who is based in Los Angeles, said in a statement on his resignation. “Andrew built his life and his career on one mission: fight the bullies. In my opinion, Steve Bannon is a bully, and has sold out Andrew’s mission in order to back another bully, Donald Trump.”

Watch for the pivot

But the larger point is the pivot: When I (and others) tried to hold the poster account for Breitbart’s corrosive racism, he pivoted to attack Planned Parenthood. What does one have to do with the other?

Even if—for the sake of argument—Sanger had been a racist and Planned Parenthood continued to support that world view lo these many decades later…that has absolutely nothing to do with Breitbart publishing white supremacist-leaning  “fake news”—seriously, let’s just call it what it is: propaganda.

I commented that many people in the past held reprehensible views but I’m more concerned with people in the present trying to shove their reprehensible views into our laws and institutions. He countered with more arguments about Planned Parenthood “targeting” black neighborhoods.

I’m afraid this story doesn’t have a happy ending, dear Reader. Despite my best efforts , I was never able to initiate a dialogue with the racist. I learned nothing about how we can help reunite people with the truth.

When I left the conversation the racist was still wedded to his propaganda sites (CNS news among them), still dismissive of the reputable news organizations (like NPR) I offered in return, still completely blind to the way his own white privilege skewed his worldview.

The right’s propaganda machine digests crumbs of facts and turns them into piles of manure. How do we convince distrustful people that the media sources they trust are actually feeding them a load of crap? If our only tool is words, I’m not sure we can. But we can’t give up, either.

The best we can do

Keep asking questions and keep telling the truth. Always go to primary source documents. Don’t just accept someone’s interpretation of a report—read the report yourself. That way you’ll be able to see how the “news source” has edited or twisted it to suit its own agenda.

And watch out for the pivot, friends, because it means you’ve cornered the other person, used up all of his flimsy arguments. If all else fails, keep reminding them of that.


Why did I schedule a repeat of my very successful 5×15 Writing Challenge to start on Monday January 23rd? Frankly, I expect I’ll need the distraction. Maybe you will too. Join us—write for 15 minutes a day for 5 days in a row and I’ll donate your $15 registration fee to Room to Read, a fantastic nonprofit supporting literacy around the world. Join us!

Reasoning and the outrageous — pay attention

If someone made an outrageous accusation about you, what would you do?

I know what I would do, because I’ve done it.

A few years after 9/11, I renewed my passport so I could go to my then-brother-in-law’s wedding in the Cayman Islands. Five days in the sun and sea in the late winter. It was lovely.

Back in the old U.S. of A., when I presented my new passport (just one outgoing stamp!) to the Customs Agent, he confiscated it and sent me scurrying to a holding room. Needless to say, this concerned me.

I sat in a little room for about a half an hour, crammed in with an array of mostly darker-skinned people, with and without children, with and without possessions piled high around them. I had all of my bags with me, too. (And, dear Reader, I do not travel light.)

Two uniformed men sat at a high desk on one side of the room. Eventually, one of them called my name. I struggled to corral my stuff so I could get to the desk. I’d only made it halfway across the room when he asked me, “Have you ever been in trouble with the law?”

I was completely gobsmacked. The words positively boomed out of my mouth: “GOOD GOD, OF COURSE NOT!” The roomful of nervous detainees laughed out loud. One of the uniforms may have laughed too. And just like that, I was free to go.

Outrageous accusations, reasoned responses

I did not watch yesterday’s news conference live; I figured I could get all I needed from the recaps. And then my social media feeds filled up with the word “germaphobe.”

I couldn’t have done this thing, the man said, because I am a germaphobe.

A curious argument. Made even more curious as I saw people begin to debate whether or not the substance in question actually contains germs. Of course, that completely misses the point.

The point is, he had been accused of committing an outrageous act. But did he respond with outrage? Did his voice boom out across the room, as mine did, “GOOD GOD, OF COURSE NOT!”

No. Instead, he tried to reason. And while I know the allegation is still not verified despite the best attempts of journalists and the intelligence community, the fact that he resorted to reason rather than outrage tells me all I need to know.

We’re hard-wired to believe

A while back I read Robert Cialdini’s book Pre-Suasion to learn more about marketing. But Cialdini made some points worth considering in this situation:

“…a communicator who ushers audience members’ attention to selected facets of a message reaps a significant persuasive advantage: recipients’ receptivity to considering those facets prior to actually considering them.”

outrageous lies can persuade us at any moment
The tagline of Cialdini’s invaluable book

In other words, the “look over here!” of “I’m a germaphobe” does more than distract us from the more important point—the disgusting nature of the alleged behavior. What Cialdini calls “channeled attention” can “make recipients more open to a message pre-suasively, before they process it.”

The words are barely out of the liar’s mouth before some part of our brain starts thinking, Hmm. He may have a point there. Just because he spoke, not because of what he said. This makes gaslighting a breeze.

Distractability is hard-wired into us. Back in the Jurassic, our ancestors probably needed to make decisions before they had fully processed information. Stop to think about whether the dinosaur chasing you has already eaten lunch and you’d likely be the main course.

Today, when would-be predators wear suits and (made in China) ties, we need to retrain our brains to reflect more.

In a time when too many political leaders manipulate the truth while insisting that they are the only honest actors around, we need to pay attention not just to what gets said but to what it actually means and what it might be distracting us from.  Social media exacerbates the problem because journalists need to process information instantaneously, with no time to ponder or synthesize it.

When outrageous things occur—and it seems safe to assume we’ll see more of them—listen for outrage in response. If you don’t hear it, press for it. Because it’s a sign we’re in trouble, my friends.


Develop a daily writing practice. It’s not only therapeutic and fun, it can make you a better writer, too. Join the 5×15 Writing Challenge—write for 15 minutes a day every day between January 23rd and 30th. Proceeds benefit a great global literacy nonprofit.

Writers’ Resolutions (not just for a new year)

Josh Bernoff, who specializes in sniffing out and calling attention to “weasel words” and outright bull in corporate and political writing, has created a list of writers’ resolutions. He’s pegged them to the new year, but they’re well worth your attention any day. Josh Bernoff offers writers' resolutions

He gives a couple of shout-outs to the fine art of editing. We writers either do too much of it (editing while we write—no faster way to kill your creativity) or too little. Bernoff points out that probably the greatest volume of writing any of us does occurs in emails. But who edits emails? Even I don’t, mostly—and I am fully aware of the power of the second draft.

I’m not going to go through all of his suggestions—please read the blog post yourselves. But I want to highlight the final one of his writers’ resolutions because I think it may be the most important:

10. Write to create action, or don’t write at all.

Every time you write something, ask, “what do I want the reader to do?”

If the answer is “I don’t know,” or “Nothing,” then delete, don’t send, don’t publish.

Business writing exists for one purpose: to create a change in the reader. So don’t waste time writing anything that creates no change.

Writers’ resolutions: When not to write

That “or don’t write at all” may be difficult if you’re a corporate writer whose boss is breathing down your neck, wondering where the draft is. After all, it’s your job to write, isn’t it?

Well, it’s part of your job, certainly. But the other part is to work with your speaker, or whoever’s name goes in the by-line, to hone the message. And that includes making sure the message is unique, contains a call to action, and makes sense.

We’ve all encountered clients who believe that every word they speak contains pearls of wisdom, when all they’ve done is string together a series of clichés. I once asked a guy who ran a mutual fund what made his fund unique. In my memory I see him puffing up his chest—he was proud of his work, proud to explain it to little old me. And he unleashed a paragraph of unmatched profundity. He thought. He deflated quickly when I translated: “Oh. You mean, ‘Buy low, sell high.'”

Beware of jargon and what my old boss used to call $5 words—I’d up that to $50, what with the way education costs have soared. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. In my experience, if someone says something you don’t understand, there’s at least a 50% chance that they don’t understand it fully, either.

Resolve to use your powers for good

Writing is not just a job; it’s a responsibility. We shape people’s perceptions of the world around them. We can use tools of our craft to create honest narratives and arguments, or to skew and shape them to fit a dishonest agenda.

I think the most important writers’ resolution is honesty. Let’s all recommit ourselves to using our talents to make the world a more decent and honest place in 2017.


Who would you be if you believed you could write? Find out. Writing Unbound: the ideas, skills, and support you need to get your writing into the world. Finally.

Satire or News? When reality becomes absurd

What’s a humorist to do when reality becomes absurd? So absurd that even intelligent, well-read people mistake it for truth?

During the campaign, I saw many articles by The New Yorker‘s resident satirist, Andy Borowitz, shared by people who mistook them for actual journalism. With all the “fake news” [proper translation: propaganda] flying around the interwebs, it’s become increasingly hard to tell humor from hyperbole.

And so The New Yorker has added a banner to its Facebook posts of Borowitz’s columns: “The Borowitz Report, Not the News.”

When reality becomes absurd, you need to clearly identify satire

Click on the link and you’ll find this above the headline:

when reality becomes absurd, label satire prominently

This isn’t a case of readers being unable to tell real news from propaganda, a trend this NPR report rightly calls “dismaying.”

It’s not because we’ve cheapened and corrupted the meaning of words to the point that vast numbers of people no longer believe the giant, undifferentiated enemy they call “the media.”

People can’t tell truth from satire these days because the truth has become so unremittingly absurd. This is not normal. None of what we are living through in the United States right now is even close to normal.

Reality becomes absurd: Trump’s first legacy

When reality induces more spit-takes than comedy, we’ve left our satirists precious little room to ply their trade. I mean, President Trump will serve not just as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces but also as Executive Producer of The Apprentice. Eight weeks ago, that might have been a headline on The Onion. This week it was a news story in Variety.

In the opening sketch on the December 4th Saturday Night Live, the actors broke character several times to remind the audience that the behavior they were skewering was not something their writers had dreamed up in a bourbon-soaked trance. One after another looked straight into the camera and said, “He really did that.” Because—guess what?—he really did.

The question is, what will we do?

It’s not just a matter of saving the Republic. Unless we act soon, our satirists will be put out of business completely. Saturday Night Live will become a news show. Andy Borowitz will turn into a journalist. And then who will amuse us?

One day we may be return to a world in which we can laugh at absurdities rather than fear or elect them. I hope I live to see it. I hope you do, too.

Public relations writing and public speech

There’s an art to public relations writing. And it’s something we should all be aware of, especially now.

When I joined a P.R. shop for about four years in the early part of this century, I quickly learned that I was going to have to choose my words from an alternate thesaurus.

For instance, politicians—no, we never wrote about politicians. People don’t like them, so they became “elected officials.” Well, I thought, it’s a clunkier phrase. But it’s not inaccurate. After a month or so, the words practically typed themselves.

Josh Bernoff keeps public relations writing honest
Josh Bernoff, defender of honest writing

My virtual colleague Josh Bernoff writes about the public relations thesaurus every day on his Without Bullshit blog. Yesterday, he took on the writer for United Airlines who churned out a press release on its new “Basic Economy” airfare. The writer positioned the new fare as giving travelers “more choice.” But people generally see choice as an additive thing: “I’ll take the French fries and the onion rings, please.”

Bernoff’s bullshit-free rewrite of United’s press release reveals that the “choice” travelers make with the Basic Economy fare involves not adding on, but subtracting:

“If you buy one of these tickets, you get no space in the overhead bin, no choice of seat (you’ll probably end up in a middle seat), you can’t sit with your family, and you’ll get no credit towards frequent flyer status levels. And to make sure everyone else knows you’re a cheapskate, you’ll board last, after everyone else.”

When public relations writing becomes our default speech

In the business world, the public relations department is among the last defenders of the truth. PR professionals don’t set policy, but they explain it. Sometimes even defend it.

And that’s where we really need to remember a responsibility that runs deeper than whatever we owe our employer. Our responsibility to our language, the tools of our trade. Our responsibility to use the actual, transparent meaning of words to convey the actual, transparent truth of the matter.

Bernoff’s suggestion, with my added emphasis:

“I think the PR person in this situation ought to push back. They should rein in the superlatives in the press release, like United’s ‘outstanding network’ and ‘great customer service’ (really?). They should make the facts clearer. And they should advise their clients and colleagues that the image of the company suffers long-term when it makes choices that create a poorer customer experience and pretend that it’s actually an improvement.”

Whatever battles we fight—with “elected officials,” with corporate executives, with the media—we must use words honestly. Because if we allow words to lose their meaning, as I’ve written before, what will we have left? How can we convey ideas when people stop believing the words we use?

More on this tomorrow.


Discover how to say what you mean and mean what you say. Register for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate”—Wednesday November 30th, 8pm Eastern, 5pm Pacific.

You can tell lies—in one instance only

I’m a champion of ethics in business, but there is one instance—and one instance only—in which it’s okay to tell lies.

This blog post by my friend Veronica Guzzardi reminded me of it. I know Veronica as a creative artist, but she remains equally creative when dealing with her web design clients who won’t—or can’t—generate their own promotional copy. I’ll let her explain:

“I’ve recently changed my workflow as a web designer/developer. Instead of just throwing Lorem Ipsum into the space, which tends to confuse and distract non-designers, I have a worksheet I give with a list of questions like ‘what year did you start your business?’ and ‘what area do you serve?’ and ‘Do you have any testimonials, or know any customers/clients who might provide one if you ask?’ If my client doesn’t get back to me with the worksheet, I lie:

For the last 325 years, Norman’s Dry Cleaners has been providing high-speed internet service to the greater Eureka area, and serves its population of over 4 million with 99.9% uptime. Our staff of 68 trained narwhals guarantee service within a one-hour window, or we will waive the first hour of your call time. Visit our facility in the heart of London anytime; we are open to the public, and provide tours by appointment.

My relationship with the client determines exactly how much I lie, and how ridiculous the lies are, but the point is, the first draft is done, and we can get to the business of correcting the information right away. Any words are better than no words, and factual words are better than any old words. And, well-crafted factual words are the best of all.”

So tell lies if your clients drive you to it. But make sure that by the time you push “publish,” you’ve replaced those lies with some “well-crafted factual words.”

Truth or consequences – the shrinking power of words

Words have consequences. And those of us who use words—whether we write them or speak them—must take responsibility for what we say.

Language only remains meaningful if we use it in integrity, but that has become increasingly rare, across the political spectrum. The orange-faced politician tells his supporters to monitor polling places “in certain areas”—and everyone understands that to mean areas that aren’t likely to vote Orange. And twenty years ago, a Democrat taught us to distrust even the simplest words. The truth, he famously said—under oath!—”depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.”

Once upon a time, facts could stop an argument. Now a muttered “Not true” will neutralize any issue—even if there’s documentary evidence. Yes, you did say that, sir, and here’s the videotape. We’ve been playing games with language for too long; the linguistic chickens are coming home to roost.

A few months ago, The Guardian published an article that asked:

“What happens when political language fails?”

The writer, former BBC director general Mark Thompson, offered an answer that gives me chills:

“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.”

Words have always had consequences; perverting the language makes those consequences quite dire.The headline on Thompson’s piece promises to examine how the breakdown of rhetoric contributed to the Brexit vote in the U.K. and to the rise of Donald Trump (thusfar) in the U.S. But English is not the only language in which “rhetoric” has gotten a bad name. Thompson notes that politicians routinely

“…deny that they were in the rhetoric business at all. If they mention the word, it is only in the context of the detested public language of the establishment. ‘If there’s one thing I can’t abide it’s rhetoric,’ that Trump-before-the-fact Silvio Berlusconi once remarked. ‘I’m only interested in what needs to get done.’

Italians actually elected Berlusconi—he served nine years as prime minister despite having significant ongoing legal problems, and possibly even ties to the Mafia. He also has an eye for the ladies, but—hey!—at least he’s honest about his hair: no comb-over. Read more about this political paragon here.

The consequences of rhetoric abuse

But back to rhetoric. Thompson writes,

“One of the advantages of noisily rejecting any notion of rhetoric is that, once listeners are convinced you’re not trying to deceive them in the manner of regular politicians, they may switch off the critical faculties they usually apply to political speech and forgive you any amount of exaggeration, contradiction or offensiveness. And, if rivals or the establishment media then point this out, your supporters may dismiss it as spin.”

The passage I boldfaced just horrifies me. The consequences of abusing rhetoric appear to be that there are no consequences to abusing rhetoric. The more people candidates lie or ignore facts, the less people come to care. But don’t take my word for it; listen to an actual voter:

“Here is Florida voter Yolanda Esquivel, quoted by the BBC in November 2015, rejecting criticism of Trump for his outspokenness: ‘I’m looking at what candidates can do, not the picky little things they say that people want to make a big deal of.'”

Like the lady says, it’s about what candidates do, not what they say. But by definition non-incumbent candidates can only talk; the doing can’t begin until after the election.

We can’t talk our way out of this

If they can’t use words, how can candidates convey specifics about what they have not yet done, but want to do? I ask as a citizen, not as someone who creates the dreaded Rhetoric for a living.

If speeches don’t work, what will? Because we need something that does. I mean, assuming we want to avoid the fate Thompson says awaits us. Remember? I quoted it at the beginning of the article—”failure of democracy, loss of freedom, civil strife and, ultimately, tyranny and murder.”

People who believe words mean nothing close themselves off to new sources of information. How do we then change their perceptions of the world? How can we right the sinking ship of state and find the civility we need to make democracy work?

Words got us into this mess. What in the world can get us out of it?

Not just another Sunday: September 11th

I don’t know how you feel about it, but for me September 11th is never going to just be the day between the 10th and the 12th.

Now, I’m lucky. I didn’t lose anyone I loved. Surprisingly enough, living in a New Jersey town full of people who commuted to the City every day, I didn’t even lose anyone I knew. I’d stopped commuting long before, but the last place I commuted to was 7 World Trade Center. My office looked straight at the vertical stripes of one of the towers—I could never remember which one.

So I didn’t lose anything—nothing tangible, anyway—on September 11th. But we all lost something—the innocent idea that those glass-and-steel towers so many of us worked in would be as intact when we clocked out as they were when we strolled in with our morning bagel.

And we gained something, too—an extra layer of fear on our commutes and plane rides. As if those weren’t uncomfortable enough to begin with. I still feel that fear—but maybe that’s because I don’t do it regularly. Maybe after enough day-in-day-out commuting, the fear moves to the back of your mind. Though I find that hard to imagine.

In 2001, my then-partner worked at a PR agency. She saw the plane hit the tower from her New York-bound commuter train and called me, told me to turn on the TV. Later that morning, as she and her colleagues in mid-Manhattan—a couple of miles north of the carnage—tried to go on with their work, they saw a press release come across whatever service they monitored. Some clueless flak had slapped a new opening line on it, in light of the morning’s events: “And now for some GOOD news…”

As if.

Fifteen years later, we haven’t yet gotten comfortable enough with 9/11 to commercialize it—thank God. But last year my in-box filled up with earnest emails from stores and websites, assuring me that they Remembered. I unsubscribed from every one. Remember—fine. But don’t use it as an excuse to put your name in front of me. Don’t use it to try to build goodwill, to get money out of me later.

I’m off social media today. Even though I wasn’t directly affected, it’s still just too hard.

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.

Telling the truth

And so we go from the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (who had a cameo in my last post) to the modern American philosopher Robert Allen Zimmerman – better known as Bob Dylan.

Receiving a special award at the Grammys this weekend, Dylan delivered a rambling speech. Personally, I would have shortened it – maybe taken out some of the “why me, Lord?” references to other artists who (he claimed) have had an easier critical and popular reception. But, then again, a more concise speech wouldn’t have been a Dylan speech. He’s the master of the lengthy song: When the label heard his early masterpiece “Like a Rolling Stone,” they figured no DJ would play a six-minute song and threw it out. Someone rescued it from the trash and brought it to a New York club, where it became an instant hit. Next thing you know the song was #2 on the charts.

So Dylan gets to break the rules. We don’t expect him to write a three-minute song (although he did, and had hits with them), and we don’t expect him to give a pithy speech.

Amid all the words he said, though, these were the most important for me:

Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said, “Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.”

Voices matter only if they convince you they’re telling the truth.

It’s fashionable today to ornament speeches with fancy graphics or artsy photographs. And that’s fine – I understand that everyone processes information differently. But no number of visual bells and whistles can save a you if your audience doesn’t believe you’re telling the truth. (Click to tweet.)

So it’s simple, really: To give a great speech, tell the truth.