Support democracy — use your own words

Want to support democracy? Use your own words, not the language the government feeds you.

Once again, the current Republican president of the United States and his minions have put words in the spotlight. Which is ironic if you consider the speculation that the man may be close to illiterate himself. Samantha Bee floated this idea last fall, comparing it to the baseless rumor about President Obama’s citizenship. It’s satire, right?

Still, his people’s talk of “alternate facts” has driven up sales of George Orwell’s novel 1984, as well as other works about totalitarianism, fictional and not. Great news for the publishing industry. Not so great news for us. We’re not just reading about a dystopian state; we’re moving toward living in one.

Support democracy by using correct words

So allow me to introduce you to Timothy Snyder, the writer of

A Yale history professor’s powerful, 20-point guide to defending democracy under a Trump presidency

It’s worth reading all 20 points—that’s why I gave you the handy link—but I want to highlight a few that fall into my bailiwick: Words and how we use them.

6. Be kind to our language.
Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

The Arendt book has joined Orwell on the best-seller lists. I ended my Inauguration Day blog post with a quotation from her work on totalitarianism.

The media have had an abysmal record of picking up and parroting the language of despots. If a dictator calls his genocide “ethnic cleansing,” for example, then anyone using the proper word—genocide—risks losing their gold star for Impartiality. Equating killing with cleaning—honestly, I can’t even type the phrase without throwing up a little. Yet journalists did it unthinkingly for decades. (I wrote about that too, in a post I called “Name Those Euphemisms!”)

We’re starting to catch on, though. It took the media only a few months to go from “alt-right” to “white nationalist,” to switch (for the most part) from “fake news” to “propaganda.” And “alternative facts” was pretty much dead on arrival. At least we still understand the definition of “fact.” Let’s hang on to that. Please.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words.
Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

I have to admit, I fell for this one after 9/11.

I had a major case of “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I”-tis when the building I used to work in pancaked that afternoon. As we mourned more than 2,000 dead, it didn’t seem unreasonable to give the government a little leeway to make sure we didn’t lose another 2,000—or more. I mean, we still had the Constitution. No American government would really infringe on the civil liberties of its citizens, right?


Fool me once, to paraphrase the saying—shame on you. Fool me twice—nope. Not gonna give you the opportunity.

Support democracy by recognizing totalitarian tendenciesWhen the Republican currently in the Oval Office finds his plans thwarted, he tweets dire warnings about who to blame “if something happens.”

Why such certainty that something bad will happen? I can’t say. But just as the Tweeter-in-Chief expects a terrorist attack, I expect an attack on our civil liberties.

In the current environment, I don’t believe a preemptive attack will succeed. (See the thousands who protested the “Muslim ban” at airports around the country. Even in the heartland.) But after an attack, it will be harder for people to resist the government’s talk about “exception” and “emergency.”

That’s why we need to talk about this now. As loudly and as often as possible. Support democracy with your words—and with your actions (you’ll find more on that in Professor Snyder’s other 18 points).


8. Believe in truth.
To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so.

It’s never been more important to speak truth to power. And

19. Be as courageous as you can.

Click here to keep in touch—and I’ll send you my “$100,000 Writing Lesson” as thanks.

What’s funny about that? Humor in dark times

Regular readers will know I’m a big advocate for humor. It helps draw your audience in. It humanizes you and helps you connect with readers or listeners. Humor makes you and your message more memorable.

But what about difficult situations? Can humor help you there? Yes. At the right time and place, and with the right amount and tone.

Humor doesn’t erase tragedy, and it would be insensitive to expect it to. But even in the midst of tragedy, people need moments that remind them of their humanity.

The first Saturday Night Live broadcast following the attacks of 9/11 opened with a somber speech from then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani (getting a warm, extended ovation from the audience, so you know it’s a very old clip) paying tribute to first-responders and to the indomitable spirit of New York residents. Then quintessential New Yorker Paul Simon sang his song “The Boxer.” The song ends:

In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev’ry glove that laid him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains…

Not a dry eye in the house—at least in my house. (Even now, remembering it.)

After the song the show’s producer, Lorne Michaels, came out to chat with Giuliani:

Giuliani: …and Saturday Night Live is one of New York’s important cultural institutions. And that’s why it’s important for you to do your show tonight.
Michaels: Can we be funny?Giuliani: Why start now?

Exercising perfect comic timing, Giuliani got the laugh. And we all breathed a sigh of relief.

The recipe: Lots of seriousness with a dollop of self-deprecating humor.

Humor and 11/9

Voters split nearly in two on 11/9: Clinton captured slightly more of the popular vote, but Trump won the Electoral College and in the U.S., that’s the win that matters. With the country so divided, many people may be happy with the outcome. Others—and this should not surprise you, I am one—are coping with rising levels of fear and anxiety.

How can this be funny?

It can’t—not the fear and anxiety part—but authentic emotion can bring us together. And then maybe you have a chance to work in something that will make even a traumatized audience smile a bit.

Seth Meyers, of NBC’s Late Night, started out his monologue on 11/9 making jokes. That is, after all, his job. But at about 3 minutes in, he takes a serious turn, talking about how the title of “first woman president” will be filled someday:

“…someone’s daughter is out there right now who will one day have that title.  Maybe, maybe you’re a woman who’s currently a Senator; maybe you’re in college. Hopefully you’re not a toddler, but who knows…?”

“Who knows?”—a small joke inserted into a serious passage. Not a knee-slapper, but it works. And then Meyers got more personal: “…whoever you are, I hope I live to see your inauguration. And I hope my mom does, too.” Authenticity. I dare you to listen without tearing up.

How can humor help you?

And that’s a blueprint business leaders can use in situations like this. Address the issue seriously. Acknowledge people’s feelings. Look for ways you can resonate on the same emotional plane as your audience. And if you try for humor, make sure it doesn’t poke fun at the pain people are going through. Make it self-deprecating, like Lorne Michaels did.

Interestingly, Seth Meyers was on the SNL writing staff after 9/11, so he saw the approach they took firsthand. Meyers’ 11/9 joke walks a fine edge—he’s nearly joking about the despair people feel. But since he feels it too, he has permission.

If you want to use humor to lighten the darkness, do it deliberately. Plan it in advance, share it with several trusted advisors and see what they think. This is not the time to ad lib! Even professional comedians would craft their words carefully in a situation like that.

Humor is a valuable tool to fight sadness. Use it wisely and you will use it well.

Learn to tell your story powerfully. Join me for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate: Write Right to Lead”—Wednesday November 30th at 8 p.m. Eastern, 5 p.m. Pacific.

Not the usual business (writing): No words

Some events seem to stop the world: You just cannot go on with your usual business. [The gods of SEO won’t let me write “business as usual.” The gods of SEO hate prepositions.]

The attacks on 9/11 stopped the world like that, seemingly in an instant. At least it happened in an instant for those of us in New York. As the twin towers smoldered downtown, my friend Lauren, safe in a midtown office, saw a press release come across the wire (or whatever internet-thing press releases come across) from a company in a distant part of the country. The PR flak who wrote it had made a last-minute adjustment in light of recent events, so headline began: “And now for some GOOD news…”

No, the fact that Ridiculous Corporation has just announced a new product does not qualify as “good news.” Not today—if ever. After 8:46 in the morning, 9/11 stopped being a day for the usual business. No new product release could trump (note to self: must find a new verb) the horrific news the country was struggling to grasp.

I thought about that 9/11 press release yesterday morning, on 11/9—the universe has a twisted sense of humor, right?—while dealing with the inconceivable election results. I intended to write about concession speeches and victory speeches, but just in case that didn’t pan out for some reason, I had queued up a post about how to introduce speakers.

In the wee hours of the morning, I went online to reschedule the post for a later date, but instead it looked I’d managed to post it immediately. Oops. It seemed unwise to goad the technology gods further, so I went to bed.

But I had neither rescheduled it nor posted it immediately. It hit the blog and my subscribers’ in-boxes right on time on Wednesday morning. And in doing so, it immediately became the most trivial thing I’ve ever written.

Words/no words

It’s become cliché to say “There are no words.”

I hate clichés, almost as much as I hate bigots. But really, dudes, I got nothing more for you today.

Whichever side of this election you were on, be good to the humans you share this country—and this planet—with.

Peace out.

When an office is more than an office

Back before the whole world worked in cubicles, I had an office on the 45th floor, with a nice big window and partial view of the mighty Hudson River. The rest of the view was the office tower across the street, which rose some 70 floors higher than my building: one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. (I could never remember which.)

I wasn’t there in 2001, thank God, but I was in 1993 when the bastards tried to bomb it the first time. I felt our building shake, saw the black smoke coming out from where the parking lot vented, walked down 45 flights of stairs with my nervous colleagues.

Today, social media is full of photos of the towers. I even got an email from a clothing store assuring me: “We remember.” I deleted it, and unsubscribed for good measure (it seemed opportunistic). I don’t need photos or emails to remember that place or the thousands of people who went to the office that day – just as I had for many years – fully expecting that they’d go home.

How many forgettable workspaces are there in the world? On days like today, I wish I could forget that one.