Pop culture references: they need to make sense

I love pop culture references. Especially in unexpected places, like business speeches or otherwise serious-minded articles.

I’ve written before about my favorite pop culture reference, courtesy of the brilliant Adam Gopnik. He begins this New Yorker piece:

“Falling, yes, I am falling, and she keeps calling me back again,” Paul McCartney sang on June 14, 1965, a memorable high-water mark in musical history, when, on a single day, he recorded that first bluegrass-rock standard, “I’ve Just Seen a Face”; the throat-shredding early-metal model “I’m Down”; and then, in dulcet tones, the most covered song ever written, the ballad “Yesterday”—all within a few hours, with a little help from his friends. Some of us think there hasn’t been as good a musical day since.

It’s a fascinating bit of pop culture history; new to me. And engaging enough that I kept reading the piece even as the very next paragraph revealed that this was not going to be a piece about the Beatles—far from it. (I won’t give it away here.)

So please use a pop culture reference when it makes sense for your topic. That doesn’t mean it has to have an obvious relationship to your subject: Gopnik’s Beatles history does not and that’s part of what makes it so delightful. But it does mean that before you’re done, it has to make sense to the reader.

Pop Culture Beauty Salon

pop culture, kryptonite
Kryptonite: Art by Gary Frank. Fair use,

That’s easier to do when you put words around your pop culture reference—or, better yet, sentences. And if that seems obvious to you, it did not to the proprietor of a beauty salon I passed the other day in Connecticut:

Kryptonnite Beauty Salon

What message were they trying to send?

Women, be so alluring that your man will be powerless before you!

What kind of fun is that? And then I saw further down on the storefront the words “Unisex Salon.” So:

Men, we’ll render you completely useless!

I don’t know about you, but that’s not the message I’d want my hairdo to send.

Story Safari

The salon misspelled the name of the substance, but in double-checking that I discovered that kryptonite takes many forms. Pink kryptonite can even turn you gay (later adjusted to “change your gender” which is not nearly the same thing. But I don’t expect political correctness from an action comic book).

And while it debilitates people from Superman’s planet, Krypton, when we Earthfolk encounter it, it can give us superpowers. It can even supercharge our pets, albeit for only a day. (Don’t tell Fenway.)

Perhaps that’s what the salon owners were thinking. Kryptonite connoisseurs, they expect their idea clients to be similarly conversant with the many uses of the imaginary mineral.

Probably not the best business plan. Unless their ideal client is super-villains, in which case they’ve probably cornered the market.


Join us on a Field Trip to the very appropriately named Getty Center in Los Angeles, August 22nd—we’ll spend the day looking for stories in its gardens, architecture, and art. More information here.

The Willits strike again

the Willits strike again
(Royalty-free image from GetStencil.com)

I’ve been thinking about the Willits a lot this week—you know, those annoying thoughts that show up whenever you stick so much as a pinky-toe outside your comfort zone to write:

Will it be any good?
Will it make people like me?

and the worst Willit of all:

Will it sell?

This isn’t the first time the Willits have come to call. I wrote about them last summer when they barged uninvited into my vacation.

But it surprised me to see them Friday night because I wasn’t writing. Still, they were waiting for me the minute I got out of the theater.

I’d just seen one of my favorite nonfiction writers read from his work. Or, well, not really “read.” Adam Gopnik crafted a one-person show out of various memoir-ish essays he’s written over the years, stringing them together thematically. They did indeed take the audience from Point A to Point B gently, subtly. In some cases brilliantly.

And they delivered me straight into the waiting arms of the Willits as I decided I would never be able to write as brilliantly as Gopnik, so why was I even trying?

Will it be a complete waste of time?

I headed to my car, Willits chattering all around me, and then I called time out and sat myself down in the nearest Starbucks to get rid of them the only way I knew how: I wrote.

My Willits, and yours

Everyone gets the Willits. I’ve been writing professionally for 25 years and they still show up—not when I’m writing for my clients, but when I’m writing for myself.

I’m doing more of that these days, writing some memoir-ish pieces of my own. So it’s easy for me to draw comparisons between myself and Gopnik. Comparisons in which, the Willits are quick to remind me, I invariably come up short.

If you have your own version of this routine, it’s important to remember one thing:

The Willits are full of shit.

The minute you hear their whiny little voices in your ear, grab a pen or the nearest laptop and start writing. Write about how you hear them (they hate that) and then remind yourself of all the reasons they’re wrong about you.

Here’s what I wrote last night:

Just out of Adam Gopnik’s show at The Public and I need some time to myself before I head back.
It was the kind of evening where you sit there thinking, “This is what I want to do.” And then, 10 seconds later, “How can I think I could possibly do anything as brilliant as this?”
He built his show around some dichotomies—individualism and plurality, for instance. I took away inspiration and defeatism. How can I snatch victory from its jaws?
First by realizing that Gopnik’s brilliance didn’t just show up one day. This show aggregated work he’s been doing since at least 2002, when Mr. Ravioli made his debut in the pages of The New Yorker. That’s 16 years ago. Who knows how long some of the other pieces have been marinating?
So I think: I’m writing memoir-ish pieces like this. But I don’t see a more universal significance in them. Does that make me a failure? No, it makes me a writer. A writer-in-progress. Once I’ve got all the material out of me and onto paper, then I can start looking for universal meanings, for strands that tie the pieces together, for something—anything—that someone who’s not me would find valuable in my work.
In the meantime, my job is not to judge. My job is to write.

And that’s your job, too. Don’t let the Willits tell you otherwise.


Join my 5×15 Writing Challenge! Write for 15 minutes a day for 5 days in a row beginning January 22nd and I’ll donate $15 to a global literacy nonprofit. Registration open now.

Metaphor: guiding your audience’s attention

“If you want to change the world, change the metaphor.” — Joseph Campbell

I ran across that Joseph Campbell quotation in Robert Cialdini’s book Pre-Suasion.

Cialdini argues that “the main function of language is not to express or describe but to influence.” And he’s assembled an impressive array of scientific research to back up that contention.

Influence runs on a spectrum from benign to coercive. We can influence by sending subliminal messages, that the audience barely perceives. By offering advice, one friend to another. By instructing, when an authority figure weighs in with expertise. We can also influence as Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather did, by “mak[ing] him an offer he can’t refuse.”

We’re seeing a lot of that kind of influence these days. Generally we call it “bullying.” But how—short of placing a severed horse’s head in someone’s bed—do we make that influence more memorable? Enter our friend the metaphor.

Metaphor, serving writers for over 2,350 years

In 335 BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle codified much of what was then known about literary theory in his book Poetics. Aristotle defined metaphor as “giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.” In another work (Rhetoric, for anyone out there as nerdy as me), he explained, “Metaphor most brings about learning.”

So if you want to “bring about learning,” use a metaphor. But—I hear you say—I’m not teaching anything. I’m just talking about my business [or whatever your subject is].

Ah, but if you engage the minds of the people in your audience, they’re more likely to remember what you say. And Cialdini believes you’re more likely to get them on your side.

Metaphor gives your readers of listeners a little puzzle to think about. Cialdini uses the example of a long-distance runner “hitting the wall.” Our brains take in those words literally, and then quickly recognize the metaphor. Walls block forward progress. Right! The runner felt unable to continue. On subsequent hearings, we’ll recognize the figure of speech more quickly. But it still produces a millisecond of “Wait, what?” in our brains.

When you open your writing with a metaphor, you engage your audience in a way that a straight recitation of facts can never do. Extra points if it’s a metaphorical story.

Metaphor in modern writing

Writers for The New Yorker specialize in using metaphors and stories to hook a reader. I once read an entire article about manufacturing toe shoes for ballerinas. I have zero interest in ballet or shoe manufacturing, but the writer was just that good. I blogged about another masterful New Yorker article a few years ago. Writer Adam Gopnik grabbed me by the lapel with a story about the Beatles and then segued into an article about geopolitics.

In both cases, I learned something. That Aristotle guy was a smart cookie.

Where do you find ideas?: Frequent Questions

Q: Where do you find your ideas?

A: Everywhere I look.

I once turned the plot of The Sound of Music into something akin to a business school case study. That may be the splashiest idea I’ve ever had for a speech—and writing it won me an award. But I try to weave something unexpected into everything I write. And those unexpected touches can come from anywhere.

I read widely, though probably not as widely as I should; I generally only read fiction if a friend wrote it. Fortunately I have some talented friends. I read Harvard Business Review, sure, but also The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. HBR lets me in on what my clients are thinking about, and Vanity Fair yields a lot of great anecdotes I can re-use. But The New Yorker may be the best writing teacher I’ve ever had (of the non-human variety; pace, Ms. Schieffelin). Just about every article from writers like Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell is a master class in style and sticky ideas.

How sticky? Can you remember a specific magazine article you read more than 14 years ago? I can.

Adam Gopnik offers a master class in how to find ideasUnless you’re a subscriber, The New Yorker‘s website only offers an abstract. But Gopnik republished “Mr. Ravioli” in his collection Through the Children’s Gate.

But where do you find ideas?

You think I’m digressing? You asked about ideas and here I’m talking about writing. Hey—without ideas there is no writing. None worth reading, anyway.

I can boil it down to its essence in three words: Show, don’t tell.

So if you’re writing about the phenomenon of hyper-busyness and its impact on our relationships, don’t begin with facts and figures. Tell us a story.

Gopnik opens his essay by introducing us to his three-year-old daughter Olivia’s fantasy life and her imaginary friend Mr. Ravioli. Olivia’s parents have never met Mr. Ravioli—not because he’s imaginary, but because he’s always too busy. Too busy, even, to play with Olivia. Instead, they engage in an endless game of imaginary-phone tag.

Imaginary friends exist to fill a void; but Olivia’s imaginary friend creates a new void. What, Gopnik asks, does this say about his daughter? And about the world we’ve created?

Of course Gopnik gets to the experts, and the theories behind them—the meaty intellectual stuff one expects of The New Yorker. But I don’t remember the article because of what some psychologist said. I remember it because Olivia’s story drew me in. And that made the story—and its message—stick.

You want people to remember what you have to say? Find ideas. Develop new habits, of seeing, reading, going to arts events. (I’m at the theater today.) Go on Story Safari.

You can find ideas everywhere, if you look beyond the obvious. Don’t leave home (to communicate) without them.

The Adam Gopnik School of Writing

Adam Gopnik may be my favorite living writer.  (If I think about that more I could probably add some qualifying adjectives like “nonfiction” – but why bother?)

One of the reasons I love his work is that he effortlessly links things that really ought not to be linked at all.  His piece on geopolitics in this week’s issue of The New Yorker leads not with Kissinger or Spengler but with Paul McCartney and the Beatles.  A few paragraphs later, he even throws in a sly Yoko Ono reference.

You’ll just have to trust me on that: The New Yorker has hidden all of this sparkling prose behind its firewall; all you get for free is a just-the-facts-ma’am abstract.  But do whatever you need to do to read the whole article. It’s a great lesson in how weighty subjects need not be dull, and how a good writer can lighten them up without dumbing them down.