What’s the difference between a speech and a salad bar?

I’m a big fan of Dorie Clark’s. I’ve worked with her, I’ve recommended her to clients. A more brilliant marketing and business strategist you could not find. And she gives a good speech, which may explain why she gives so many of them.

But…

I’ve got to disagree with her recent Harvard Business Review piece, “How to Give the Same Talk to Different Audiences.”

She advises speakers:

…it can be helpful to envision the sections of your speech as “modules” that you can shift and reshuffle as needed.

That advice needs to come with a warning label. Because you can’t just rearrange a speech, not without making other adjustments.

You can’t order a speech à la carte

A great speech hangs together from beginning to end – like a tasting menu at a three-star Michelin restaurant. Ask for the asparagus after dessert and you ruin the flow of the meal.

I’m not saying you can’t rearrange the elements of your speech. But if it’s a well-constructed speech, A transitions to B, which builds to C.

In other words, you’re telling a story—that’s what people will remember from your speech, the story you tell. And of course that story needs to contain these “modules” of ideas you want to convey. And you can’t just reshuffle parts of a story like it’s a deck of cards.

Avoid the word-salad bar

I once wrote for an executive – and seriously, once was more than enough for me – who treated his speeches like a salad bar. He wasn’t looking for a speech so much as a mise en place, the chopped-up veggies and other ingredients a chef has handy before the restaurant opens for the day so she has everything she needs to assemble a dish.

This executive expected the “writer” to present him not with a well thought-out speech, not with a story that built to a crescendo of anticipation, with the audience hanging on his every word.

a speech is not a saladNope, this executive wanted four buckets of words: one with options for his opening, one containing several stories he enjoyed telling, a third with assorted facts, and a final bucket with an array of inspirational quotes for the closing.

That’s not a speech; it’s a word-salad bar. When he stepped onstage to deliver his remarks, he would choose one piece from each bucket—whichever piece struck his fancy.

Now, I’m sure that’s not the kind of modular construction Dorie had in mind when she wrote the HBR piece. Dorie is a fine writer. When she moves chunks of a speech around, I’m sure she ties them together thematically; I’m sure she’s careful to make sure she’s still telling a coherent story.

But I worry that her readers might not understand the importance of the connective tissue that holds a speech together.


Want to improve your writing? Register for my 5×15 Writing Challenge. Write for 15 minutes a day between June 4th and 8th and I’ll donate $15 to Room to Read, a global literacy nonprofit.

Writing 90 days & more — could YOU do it?

Today may look like just another Thursday to you, but to a handful of writers it’s a big freaking deal. They’ve been writing 90 days in a row (why not “writing for 90 days”? You know the answer: SEO). Yes, they have completed my second 90-Day Writing Challenge.

Ninety days in a row can be a pretty daunting commitment. I started my streak accidentally, but I still remember where I was when I hit 90 days, and how proudly I proclaimed it to the people I was with.

A dozen writers plunked down their money to join the challenge. As I write this on Wednesday night, it looks like only three will complete the full 90 days, with another two fulfilling their commitment of writing Monday through Friday for the 13 weeks.

The rest? Some of them never even started. One missed the full 90 by a single day—but to his credit, he picked back up and started writing the very next day. I have enormous respect for that. One of the reasons I’ve continued to write daily—even when I need to drag myself out of a sickbed to do it—is that I’m afraid once I break my streak, I’ll never recreate it. He’s well on his way, though.

What does writing 90 days get you?

What do my writers get out of the experience? Well, here’s what Harold Waisel told me today:

“I’ve learned a lot in the 90-Day Challenge. More story, less passive voice, trying to use more active verbs. And the more you practice, the better at it you get.”

“The more you practice, the better at it you get.” Exactly.

That’s one reason my Writing Unbound program lasts for 10 weeks. That’s more than enough time to solidify new habits, like writing every day. Yes, I ask participants to commit to 15 minutes a day, just like my Challenge writers. And just like me. (Day 520 on Wednesday Sept. 27th.)

I probably won’t run another 90-Day Challenge until sometime next year. It’s quite a—well—a challenge for me too, keeping track of who’s written, reading all the marvelous and inventive things they come up with.

But I will be running another 5-Day Writing Challenge December 26th-30th. That’s when all this craziness started last year, with the Jumpstart 2017 5×15 Writing Challenge, so it’ll be an anniversary. And I’m planning a great celebration.

Click here and I’ll keep you posted.

Prescription: Two days’ rest

Done with my ten-day traipse around the midwest, I finally saw the doctor yesterday: She ordered me to stay bed for two days. Two days’ rest? Is she high?

No, but I’ll tell you what else she isn’t: an entrepreneur.

Or, Fenway gently reminds me, a dog-mom.

Well, clearly something has to give. I showed up for all my appointments an hour early yesterday. Well, the first appointment, a phone call, got canceled.

But I showed up in person for the second one and set a lot of heads scratching.

“I’m here for my eleven-thirty!” I smiled my chipperest, no-way-I’m-feeling-poorly smile.

two days' rest
Do I look like I need two days’ rest? (Rhetorical question.)

“But we don’t have you down until twelve-thirty.” And the 11:30 energy drained in a flash. When I returned hour later, the first thing they did was put a face mask on me.

ProTip: When changing time zones, make sure your calendar has reoriented itself to your destination time before making note of the day’s appointments.

Still, if you’re going to make that mistake, eastbound is the direction you want to make it in. I once had a client with a 5pm flight out of JFK linger surprisingly long in our afternoon meeting. He’d decided to keep his watch set on west-coast time, but then went ahead and read it as if it were New York time. Of course, a cell phone would have automatically updated—unless you kept it on airplane mode, where I discovered my iPad just now more than 24 hours after we left the airport.

Yes, yes. Two days’ rest. Fenway will understand…but will my clients?

Well, maybe one really good day’s rest will do. On East Coast time.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day starting September 18th and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Marlena Corcoran: “It wasn’t like that”

Dr. Marlena Corcoran, today’s guest blogger, is the author of The Athena Mentor College Application Workbook and Passport to College: The International Student’s Guide to the Best Education in the World (see her website, athenamentor.com, for more information). While participating in some of my daily writing challenges earlier this year, Marlena returned to her passion—stories inspired by her childhood in Brooklyn. I’m delighted that she’s chosen to share a story based on that work with you today.—Elaine

It wasn’t like that

by Marlena Corcoran

“It wasn’t like that,” says my sister.

She says it every time. Every time I publish something, the phone rings, and it’s my sister.

“It wasn’t like that.”

I listen to the list of factual errors, misrepresentations and misremembrances. Unlikelihoods. Conjectures.

I recognize transitions, metonymy, interior monologue. That’s what this is to me. Words on the page.

And then there are the plain old unattractive details that happen to be true, but did I really have to mention that.

And errors. If this were a quiz in a history class, I would fail. Even if every iota is, shall we say, correct, it just doesn’t add up for me in quite the same way it added up for everybody else. Each fact becomes a piece in a very wrong puzzle.

And then there are the things that only I would know. I get no phone calls there. Continued radio silence would have been so preferable.

***

Marlena Corcoran
Photo by Rachel Viader Knowles

So one day I joined an art action called “The Former Resident Project.” It was for people who used to live in Brooklyn. No current inhabitants allowed. This ensured we all were writing from memory. Our memories. Not a fact-checker in sight.

We were all invited to submit a story. I sent in eighteen. I’m sorry, but once I got going, I was on a roll. Decades of zip code 11209 got sent back to Rewrite.

The organizing artist printed out the stories on sheets of refrigerator magnet, and cut the stories to size. She traveled to the location of each story.

Did I mention they were site-specific.

She slapped each story on any metal thing that would anchor the magnet. Her idea was that people would take the stories home.

I don’t think anybody wanted my stories on their refrigerator. None of these stories was the King James Version of what went down in that particular neighborhood. But I was gratified to see the lamppost outside my childhood home covered with refrigerator magnets telling story after story of what went on behind those walls.

At least, as I saw it.

One of the magnets was set up far away, in an empty field. An airplane in the distance. Weeds. At the time, I couldn’t talk about it. The sign said only, “This was Barren Island.”

***

“Please return the family photos.”

You have to be kidding me. Return them to whom?

For once in my life, I did not ask myself what I had done wrong. I didn’t even reply to my cousin’s mail. I figured some day she might even think what a miracle it is, that someone twisted our lives into little pipe cleaner figures on a stage, that maybe might mean something to somebody else, or maybe might mean something all by themselves.

I thought back to my mother’s friend Audrey, talking to my mother about a movie that had just come out. It was set in our neighborhood: Saturday Night Fever.

“It wasn’t anything like that,” she hissed. “How could they say those things?” My mother nodded in agreement. “It’s nothing like that.” They turned to me. “Is it.”

I turned away. Maybe the miracle is that we agree on anything at all. How things are. The way they were.

Wie es eigentlich gewesen: how it really was.


Write better when you write more often. Join Elaine Bennett’s 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and we’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Drunk on creativity — another 5×15 Challenge in the books

I got drunk yesterday. On creativity—it would have to be creativity since I don’t drink alcohol. (Well, the occasional sip of a fine Champagne if it’s on offer. I mean, you’d have to be crazy to pass that up. But anyway, the creativity. It wasn’t mine—not yesterday. It was my writers’. And that was even better than Veuve Cliquot.

I spent yesterday morning in two private coaching sessions, working with writers on pieces so beautiful they brought me to tears. One was literally gut-wrenching, a powerfully emotional experience for both writer and reader. And then I went right into a webinar to celebrate the 5×15 Writing Challenge that ended yesterday. That session turned into an impromptu writers’ group—a taste of some of what we’ll be up to in the 90-Day Writing Challenge beginning July 1st.

And after two hours of emotions seesawing between the sadness and anger provoked by one writer’s piece and the joy of seeing the creativity unleashed by this group of writers—after two hours of that…what can you do?

What I was supposed to do was dive into my corporate speechwriting; I had a ton of work on my plate. But much as I love my clients, their content can’t compare with an emotional punch in the gut. Clearly I needed to sober up before I could work.

Creativity detox

In a perfect world, I would have been able to take the rest of the day off. Sit with some of the emotions my writers stirred up. Celebrate their accomplishments. Savor the small role I played in facilitating them.

But the “perfect world”—at least my perfect world—bans all deadlines. And, alas, the world I currently live in does not.

So I took the dog for a walk and I took myself out to lunch. I drank lots of strong, hot tea.

But great writing doesn’t just vanish because you’ve upped your caffeine intake. It hangs around. Hangs…yes, I suppose I had a creativity hangover.

I did eventually get my writing done and delivered. I’d promised it to my client by close of business—and warned her that it might mean close of business in California. Or someplace in the Pacific. I got it to her before 5pm in L.A. Not ideal, since my client is on the East Coast. But if she’d heard the things I heard yesterday, she would have been drunk, too.


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

Aaaand they’re off! The 5×15 Writing Challenge returns

What’s the most important part of the 5×15 Writing Challenge?

5x15 Writing Challenge
Feedback from the very first writing challenge

Is it the donations the writers earn for charity? Our first three challenges have raised about $1,200 for Room to Read, a fantastic nonprofit promoting global literacy.

Is it the discipline of developing a daily writing practice? Many veterans of the 5-day challenges are on track to finish the more daunting 90-day challenge that finishes on June 30th. (And yes, there’s another 90-Day Challenge right behind that one, starting July 1st.)

Certainly both of those are important outcomes. But my favorite parts of the 5-day-long challenge are the discoveries people make along the way.

Challenge writers push through their fears and discover that when you push through your fears often enough, they go away. Or at least subside long enough for you to write.

People who haven’t written for pleasure in years—or perhaps ever—discover the joy of being creative. Being silly, even. And people who write for a living use the challenge to dig into those memoirs they’ve been meaning to write.

Entrepreneurs who know they should be blogging bank some blog posts. One participant this time has committed to writing that five-email sequence she’s been meaning to create for her new followers.

Challengers have written satire, fiction, odes to their pet gerbils. I’m inspired by their creativity. And humbled by the care and generosity they demonstrate in our Facebook group.

I’ve said often that the 5×15 Writing Challenge may be the best idea I had in all of 2016. I’m excited to see how it’s flourished—this round has the highest enrollment yet. And I can’t wait to see what’s next for these writers.


Writing is just the first part of the process. Revising—that’s the secret sauce that gives your writing zing. Join my free webinar on revising.

My voice, my voice. Where’s my writer’s voice?—Frequent questions

Q: How can I find my writer’s voice?
A: Keep writing.

No one wants to be derivative. So I understand my writers’ eagerness to find their own voices.

writer's voice
Finding your writer’s voice is not like searching for buried treasure

Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut, no Geiger counter you can wave across the sand of your creativity searching for buried treasure.

So how do you find your writer’s voice?

Keep looking.

That’s one reason it’s essential to write every day.

When your writer’s voice starts whining

We’re in the home stretch of my first 90-Day Writing Challenge and fatigue has set in. I hear things like, “I’m tired of writing.” Or “I can’t wait to take a break.” I hear you. I’ve gotten out of a nice, warm bed to write when I realized I’d forgotten to do it earlier. That’s how you make it to 412 days (as of June 11th). And 412 days—and 413, 414, you get the idea—is how you get to be a better writer.

Still whining or not, a whopping 50% of my writers are on track to fulfill their complete commitment, either by writing Monday-Friday (earning $10 a week for their charity) or by writing every day. Yes, for 90 days in a row. That feat earns a donation of $150. And writers who hit smaller milestones earn donations too.

Remarkably, people who’ve broken their streaks start right back in again the next day. That’s dedication.

Some of the challenge writers have also been studying with me—we’re on the second of two 12-week-long courses—and especially with these writers, I can see the beginning of a consistent voice. But it’s hard. It’s frustrating to plug away at something day after day and feel like you’re still not where you want to be.

It’s even more frustrating for smart people who are used to picking up new things easily. Finding your writer’s voice isn’t something you can learn in three easy lessons. Or even 30. Your writer’s voice will emerge when it’s good and ready. On its time, not yours. And all you can do is let it know you’re there, ready to welcome it in with a hug and a warm cup of tea.

Invite writer’s voice to set a spell

And how do you let your writer’s voice know the kettle’s on? Uh-oh, I hope you’re thinking, I know what’s coming. Yep:

You write.

Every damn day. Which also happens to be the name of the publication I started on Medium to showcase my writers’ work.

Have you got what it takes? We’ve got another 90-Day starting up July 1st. But test the waters with a 5-Day challenge starting June 19th. Join us.

“Lordy!” — get sticky with colloquialisms

Lordy
“Lordy,” indeed.

I didn’t have time to watch Jim Comey’s testimony live yesterday: I had to prep for the writing class I lead on Thursdays. And after that, I had to dive back into The Project That Ate My Week™, whose deadline looms tomorrow. (I’ll make it; I always do.)

But I have caught snippets of the coverage, read bits of news articles here and there. And one word sticks out for me—and apparently for many other people too:

“Lordy”

It’s certainly not the most important thing the former FBI Director said. It won’t be a central feature of the future analyses written about this key turning point in American history. If there’s a future in which to write histories.

But it may just be the “stickiest”—most memorable—sentence to emerge from his testimony:

“Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”

Why “Lordy” matters

Think about all the ways Comey could have phrased that response:

“I certainly hope there are tapes.”

“I would welcome the release of those tapes, should they exist.”

Those are plausible examples of bureaucrat-ese. And boring as hell. Or as we can imagine Comey might say, “as heck.”

But “Lordy” takes the information out of the hearing room and puts it out in the real world. I was going to say “on the street” but that street would be somewhere in Mayberry. And that’s part of what makes it sticky. It’s somehow not of our world, so our brains hang onto it a little longer than they would a more familiar word. We turn it over, examine it from all angles. And in examining the unfamiliar word, we also hang onto the rest of the sentence: “I hope there are tapes.”

Of course, Comey was talking about the tapes that Tr*mp claimed to have of their private conversations. But when we get to thinking about those tapes, we can’t help but be reminded of those other tapes, the more salacious tapes the Russians are rumored to have. The more we think about tapes in connection with that man in the White House, the worse it is for him. And “Lordy”—lordy, lordy, we can’t let go of that word. And the tapes that follow it.

Straight from the heart

“Lordy” did not come from a lawyer or a communications consultant. It’s a colloquialism—informal language; it’s just the way people talk. Straight from the heart.

If you want people to listen to you, a communications consultant can help. But if you want people to remember you, speak straight from the heart. (And—shhh!—a great communications consultant can help there too.)

A well-placed colloquialism can have a lasting impact.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

In praise of imperfection: “The things that are wrong make it art”

Imperfection?
photo from Taylor Hill’s Instagram account

I don’t know who Taylor Hill is. The April 2017 issue of  InStyle magazine tells me she’s a “megamodel”—so even more super-er than a supermodel, I guess. As I said, no idea. But she displays a mega-impressive understanding of imperfection, courtesy of her high school art teacher who told her:

“Don’t try to perfect things. The things that are wrong are what make it art.”

Now, Hill trots out this piece of wisdom in reference to the art of makeup application—she megamodels for Lancôme’s makeup line—but I think it applies to any creative endeavor.

I preach the virtues of imperfection. But do I practice them?

I need to interrupt this ode to imperfection to note that I spent a couple of hours last night ripping out several very long rows of the afghan I’m knitting because I spotted one stitch out of place. But it would have ruined the pattern! And every time I looked at the finished product, that’s the only thing I’d see.

If I truly embraced imperfection, I’d be able to enjoy the tens of thousands of stitches that are in the right places. Or in Taylor Hill’s milieu, I’d still feel gorgeous even if the ends of my eyeliner don’t wing up at exactly the same angle. But to judge from the photos in InStyle, which I cannot link to, anyone who looks at Taylor Hill and sees only mismatched eyeliner needs some serious therapy.

Now, I do actually care about my eyeliner, when I wear it. But I happily release blog post after blog post into the world, knowing full well that some of them are much w*rse—let’s just say less well-written—than others. See for yourself: scroll down.

What’s the difference? Why do I care about an imperfection in the knitting project hardly anyone will see but I’m perfectly nonchalant about imperfections in my blog that the entire internet may see?

Two things:

  1. I’m committed to ship.
  2. Perfection doesn’t exist.

Imperfection and commitment

No matter how much I want to fuss with my makeup, I know that at some point I’m going to have to walk out the door. Because if I’m putting on makeup in the first place that means I have someplace to go. So I’d better get there.

I’ve committed to publishing a blog post every day. I could wrangle with it until 11:59 p.m., but chances are 12+ hours of fussing wouldn’t measurably improve the draft. And, anyway, I have other things to do, a life to lead—which may or may not involve knitting and makeup (though usually it’s one or the other).

So I recognize that it’s imperfect, and I bless and release it. I ship.

I don’t know if you count my blog as “art.” Maybe some days.

But I do know it’s the best my imperfect self can do on any given day. And that’s good enough for me.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

“Anyone can write” — um, no. Just…no.

Anyone can writeYesterday, a client told me a story about a friend of hers at another company. A company reorganizing its communications department by stuffing it full of marketers with no particular communications expertise.

My client said something like, “But can they write?” And her friend replied confidently:

“Oh, anyone can write.”

Reader, I screeched in horror.

Fortunately my client was right there with me. She understands that while anyone can write—most people have the requisite number of fingers to work a keyboard, the opposable thumbs to hold a pen—not everyone should.

“Anyone can write?” Have you read some of the stuff out there?

Some people are born storytellers. They captivate their audiences with memorable messages that stick long after the speech is over, the opinion piece read.

Other people…well, they’re handy to have around when insomnia strikes.

Of course, most of us write every day. Emails, texts, Mother’s Day cards (that’s your Public Service Announcement: it’s tomorrow).

But stringing words together to thank Mom for the meatloaf, or to remind your colleagues about the strategy meeting on Monday—that’s not writing. It’s not going to inspire anyone (well, maybe Mom). It’s not something you need your readers to remember forever; just until the meeting starts.

How many mush-mouthed corporate mission statements have you read? How many reports that say nothing? Or—the opposite sin—that say so much you can’t uncover the real message? Those, my friends, were written by Anyone—the “anyone” who “can write.”

Anyone can learn to write

Now, there’s hope for Anyone—because Anyone can learn to write. But, as with everything, the first step is recognizing you have a problem. In this case, it’s the company’s problem: they don’t understand why good writing matters.

I’ve always said that my favorite clients were smart enough to know good writing when they read it, but too busy to do it themselves. That’s where I come in.

Now that I’ve added webinars to the mix of services I offer, I should tweak that slightly:

My favorite clients are smart enough to know good writing when they read it and savvy enough either to get the support they need to do it themselves or to find a great writer to do it for them.

Okay, that’s a mouthful. I’ll work on it.

Still, I feel sorry for those poor marketers being shoehorned into comms jobs because the boss thinks “anyone can write.”

Anyone—if you’re reading this, call me. I can help.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.