A new holiday tradition: study racism

How much of what we automatically celebrate really merits celebration?

In a few days we’ll be celebrating the 4th of July, the founding of the United States of America. Surely that’s not a problematic holiday?

a Black man wrapped in an American flag. Is 4th of July a racist holiday?Weeeeelllllllll….the Declaration of Independence our Founding Fathers signed on July 4, 1776 remained silent about the enslavement of Black people—a practice begun in this hemisphere by  Christopher Columbus, by the way, who enslaved indigenous people in Barbados and instituted “barbaric forms of punishment, including torture” when he served as governor of Hispaniola. Somehow, they didn’t teach us that in elementary school.

England and Europe had already outlawed the practice of enslaving human beings when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence—and, despite the fact that he “owned” enslaved people himself, his first draft condemned the practice. The Continental Congress removed that section, in exchange for votes from the colonies whose economies depended on slavery—not all of which were in the South.

Understand the past, change the future

Today, Black Americans still contend with the effects of this shameful history: how many nonviolent white people get killed by the police? And the judicial system is not the only aspect of our society that’s been shaped by centuries of reduced economic, educational, medical, and social opportunities for Black people. Or, if you’d like a more concise way of putting that, by Institutionalized Racism.

Recently, more white Americans are coming to terms with how we have perpetuated (and perhaps are continuing to perpetuate) Institutionalized Racism.

Sometimes we do it unconsciously, like by not thinking too hard about why the junior white guy got that promotion instead of the more experienced Black person. After all, if we think about it, we might have to speak up.

Or by hearing a middle-aged Black friend talk about being followed by security in a store and saying, “That happened to me a lot when I was a teenager.”

Or by ignoring a white person making a scene in a grocery store or on a sidewalk or in a park when a Black person asks them politely to follow the rules. Walking away in those situations is a privilege, one our Black neighbors do not have.

It’s easier to think about unconscious racism, because its evil twin—conscious, active racism—is an absolute stain on humanity. We have to root that out like the invasive weed it is.

Racism has a hell of a head start on us—400 years, 500 years, more—so it’s not going to disappear quickly. But with diligence and commitment, we can eradicate it. And by “we,” I mean white people. We’re the ones who invented it, after all; we have to take the lead in dismantling it.

A new holiday tradition: study racism

So as you kick back on this 4th of July, think about adding a new tradition to your holiday festivities. Celebrate our freedom as a country, sure. But remember that the Declaration of Independence didn’t free all of us.

In between burgers and fireworks and red-white-and-blue desserts, take a few minutes to think about how unconscious racism might surface in your life.

  • Have I ever failed to acknowledge a Black person in the room?
  • Have I ever interrupted a Black person who was speaking?
  • Have I ever claimed that my experience as a white person was similar to a Black person’s?
  • Do I take the opportunity to amplify good ideas offered by Black people?
  • Do I devote a little time—even 5 minutes a day—to learning more about Black people’s experiences?

This exercise is not about making white people feel guilty. In my opinion, guilt is a totally unproductive emotion. The past is the past—focus on the present and on the future:

What will I do to understand the effects of institutionalized racism better tomorrow than I do today?

In case you didn’t know…#BlackoutTuesday

photo of James Baldwin, smiling
I keep thinking of James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.” There have been many “next times” since he wrote that essay, but perhaps we can make this time one of the last times.

I’m putting my megaphone aside today. It’s time—it’s past time—for allies to listen and learn.

So I am joining many people across the country to observe #BlackoutTuesday today.

Read a book. Engage in some activism. Donate some money if you can—or time and attention if you can’t.

Don’t be an auctioneer

If you’ve ever been to an auction, you know how fast auctioneers talk. You couldn’t measure the speed of those words if you had a radar gun. But that’s okay if you’re an auctioneer, because the only words your audience needs to understand are the prices and the magic word “Sold!”

auction-goer waits to bidIn a speech, on the other hand, you probably want your audience to understand everything you say. Because if they don’t, they’ll tune out; they won’t remember a thing you’ve said. And why even bother to give a speech if you don’t want the audience to remember your ideas?

Good writer, awful speech

I still remember one conference (20 years ago!) where one of my favorite writers was slated to give the keynote speech. They told him the slot was 60 minutes but they forgot to tell him he was sharing that time with another speaker. He’d written an hour-long speech (we can talk some other time about how crazy that is), but he only had half an hour to deliver it.

What did he do?

He refused to cut one word—he just turned into an auctioneer, delivering the speech twice as fast as he would normally talk. Which, since he was a New Yorker, was already faster than most. The only thing I remember about his speech was that it contained a lasagna recipe. Surely he could have left that out, I thought.

I’m sure in other circumstances, I would have enjoyed the fine writing that must have been buried in that onslaught of words. I might have found him charming, even. Instead, he came across as petulant and self-centered. Do I need to add that I haven’t read another word he’s written since?

I don’t think many speakers encounter a situation that extreme, but it’s not entirely unique. Sometimes you find yourself with more speech than you have time. That’s part of what happened to one of my Type A clients when she threw away the opening I had written for her. As I said previously, that’s not the right solution.

Becoming an auctioneer is never the right solution

If you arrive at the venue and find that the organizer has clearly not been organized enough to give you accurate timing for your speech, ask for a few minutes and a Sharpie and do a little speech-liposuction. Don’t cut entire swaths of it—unless there’s a standalone section. Cut a couple of sentences here, a paragraph there.

You’ve practiced it lots already (right?) so you know how long it takes to deliver. Depending on how you or your speechwriter has formatted the text, it’s generally 1-2 minutes per page. Use that as a guideline and do your best.

And next time that organization asks you to speak, have your people double- and triple-check the timing.

Speeches are not small talk

Many of my clients are hard-driving, Type A people. I like that about them. In fact, I think of myself as Type A–adjacent: I can drive myself as hard as the next person to meet a deadline, but I also know enough about myself to schedule in rest and even relaxation. (Okay, okay, I’m working on it.)

But when you’re speaking to people who don’t know you, you can’t just barrel onto the stage and start spewing words at the audience. Even if they’re good words, outlining great ideas. You have to introduce yourself.

I don’t mean, “Hi, my name is”—someone else will do that before you come onstage. I mean, you have to let your audience know who you are.

Many of my clients think of this as small talk. They eschew small talk in their daily lives, so why should they engage in it when giving a speech?

It’s not small talk in a speech

I finally came up with an analogy that resonated with one of my Type A folks. Perhaps it will resonate with you, too.

When you go to a networking event, you don’t just walk up to people and start giving them your elevator pitch. Do you?

Why not?

Because you understand that until someone knows/likes/trusts you, they’re not going to care about what you do.

It’s the same thing with speeches.

This is not about meaningless small talk. Whatever you say must relate to the body of the speech you’re about to give. It must add value: by giving people some insight into your personality, how you got to be doing what you’re doing; by expanding people’s notion of what’s possible—in a similar way that the idea you’ll be discussing will expand their notion of [whatever your big idea makes possible].

If your personality is best described, as one of my former clients’ was, as “waking up in the morning ready to bite the ass off a bear”—I’m not saying you have to suddenly become cute and cuddly. That’s not authentic, and people will know that. But use it. Make a little joke about how people think you’re fearsome and tell us about how you teamed with some of your people to create this innovation you’re here to talk about.

You don’t have to turn the audience into Dr. Phil. We don’t care about the loss of your teddy bear when you were three. But we do care about what brought you to the height from which you’re speaking to us. Show us your humanity; let us care about who you are and we’ll care much more about what you’ve done.

“It’s so dark”—Communicating in the age of Covid-19

Communicating in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic is not making lemonade out of lemons. It’s more like making lemonade out of lemons that have been left in the back of someone’s pickup truck. In 90-degree heat. For three months.

If you’re not struggling with a loved one alone in the ICU, or the unexpected loss of your income, or four-year-old twins suddenly cut off from the outside world—then yes, you might be able to see a “bright side” in all of this.

But if you are struggling with any of those things—and Lord knows that’s only a partial list—then hearing some company yammer on about the bright side is not going to give you the warm fuzzies. It’s going to make you want to throw something. Preferably straight at the CEO’s head.

If that’s the tack you want to take, you’d be better off keeping quiet.

“It’s so dark”

person shining flashlight at the heavensI wrote a post-Covid-19 piece for one of my clients recently. They had a story to tell about some positives that might emerge from the rubble of the world as we know it. But my first paragraph acknowledged the damage that’s been done to people’s lives as well as to the business world.

The client returned the draft with a note: “This opening is so dark. Can’t we delete?”


You don’t have to tell people that the pandemic has happened—and please, please don’t talk about “these unprecedented times.” We know.

But you must acknowledge that people have endured a range of unpleasant things—from mild (disruption of their schedules) to catastrophic (deaths of family members and friends). If you want to speak to them, you must acknowledge that before you can say anything else.

To put it on a more human level: if your spouse’s sibling died suddenly, you wouldn’t come home from work and say, “So, what’s for dinner?” If a coworker’s child was hospitalized, you wouldn’t lead with, “When am I going to see that PowerPoint?”

Of course you wouldn’t (at least I hope you wouldn’t!)—because those would be in-person interactions. Your natural humanity kicks in when you have to look in someone’s eyes.

When you’re writing—whether it’s a company-wide email or a LinkedIn post or an op-ed in your local newspaper—it’s easy to forget that you’re not just writing for “readers.” You’re writing for people.

If times are dark, acknowledge that. And then flip on your verbal flashlight and show them the path out.

Excellence and Perfection

Can excellence exist without perfection?

Sign: Wisdom yes; perfectionism, noThe woman presenting a lecture on grit last night claimed that people who exhibit grit focus on the former rather than the latter. That sparked a lively discussion among some of her listeners. Some believe perfection must automatically be excellent. Why wouldn’t we strive for perfection? they asked.

I thought about the writers I’ve worked with over the years. So many get stuck because if they cannot compose the perfect sentence—and, spoiler alert, no one can compose a perfect sentence, certainly not on a first try—they’re afraid to write anything.

I thought about myself, when I’m learning a new skill. It’s much easier to stop trying at all than to confront my mediocre attempts.

In those cases, striving for perfection doesn’t produce excellence, it produces nothing.

As my friend (and not relative) Sam Bennett says: “Get a C.” Do something. Try. And if you fall short of excellence, congratulate yourself on being human. If improvement is important to you, then try again. And again after that (for 10,000 hours, if you believe the statistic Malcolm Gladwell misquoted). That’s grit.

Maybe at some point you’ll stumble onto excellence; maybe not. But perfection—if that’s your goal, you’ll never get anything creative done.

Breaking barriers, sportswriters edition

a footbal on a fieldI’m not a big fan of most sports, but I am a fan of sportswriters. They have to turn out crisp, interesting prose while paying attention to a game that, in some cases, will render all their crisp, interesting prose unusable if that hail Mary pass connects at the last second.

I recently found a new name to add to my pantheon of sportswriters: Elinor Kaine. It doesn’t hurt that she’s also a Smithie, like yours truly. Natalie Weiner wrote a long pre-Super Bowl piece about her this week; it’s worth a read.

Elinor was the first writer to follow the football beat. Here’s what one of her competitors had to say:

“There is something basically discomforting about a gal sportswriter…Too many times it’s just a gimmick; in Elinor Kaine’s case, though, it’s downright embarrassing. She’s good.”

Here’s some of her embarrassingly good prose:

“If it is taken two at a time, football can be broken down for spectating purposes into 11 individual duels. Watching one duel at a time is absorbing. Superb athletes, football players use finesse, quickness and cunning as much as size and strength. The mini-wars are violently sophisticated and highly unpredictable.”

She broke into sportswriting by founding her own football newsletter, the first publication of its kind to aggregate news about every football team in the country. Eventually, as the newsletter’s circulation grew—and her reputation along with it—bigger players in the media invited her to write regular columns. She even got a book deal. But one thing she couldn’t get was a fair shake.

When the Jets and the Giants played each other for the first time, at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Kaine had to sue for access to the press box. She won—but they shunted her into an area with a few folding chairs and nothing on which to set her typewriter, and thus no way to make her deadline.

“Elinor laughed at the pretensions of men who patronized women with their pseudo-expertise,” [Larry] Merchant [a newspaper columnist in Philadelphia] wrote on the occasion of Penna’s retirement from sportswriting. “She poked fun at the juvenile antics of grown men who played, coached and owned. She fleshed out the people hidden under all that armor and money.”

“She would come up with these anecdotes that ordinary sportswriters at the time wouldn’t care about, would never find out about,” he says now.

That, my friends, is good writing. And something all of us should be doing—find the anecdotes that others overlook and your work will always be surprising and memorable.

Shoes v. Ideas: what makes a great speech?

What makes a great speech? Is it the location? The scenery? The shoes you bought specifically for the occasion?

Or is it the words you say and the chain reaction of thoughts those words start in your listeners’ minds? Is it the ideas you spread? The change you make in the world?

The TED Talks tagline is “ideas worth spreading.” What? you’re probably thinking, you mean it’s not about the shoes?

No, I know you’re not thinking that. If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know I’m all about the words. Although, to be honest, I did wear a spectacular pair of lavender-and-green Fluevogs to deliver my TEDx Talk. (The link will take you to an equally spectacular pink-and-purple pair.)

If you have something important to say, it doesn’t matter if you show up barefoot in a one-room shack. As long as the audience is physically comfortable enough to listen to you…and as long as you say something worth hearing, everyone gets something valuable out of the experience.

the women who spoke with me at TEDxBayRidgeWomen
That’s me in the pink jacket

I did not deliver my TEDx Talk in the grandest of surroundings. That didn’t matter to me, because I knew this was the first time TEDx had come to this particular community. If you’re a smart organizer, you test the concept first: build it and see who comes.

Who came was a diverse range of people with stories worth sharing, ideas worth hearing, and a marvelous mix of audience members who laughed, applauded, and even took notes. One woman told me she’d come because a post I made in a Facebook group prompted her to buy a ticket and she was so glad she had.

Who left was a group of five speakers—nearly half the planned lineup—the night before the event. They took with them their high heels, one gorgeous gold-embroidered black velvet jacket, and an attitude that their ideas are only worth sharing in certain surroundings.

The organizer found a few replacement speakers at the last minute and, honestly, those talks—prepared and given in two hours flat—were among my favorites. One woman spoke about the culture of the Sherpas who help people climb Mt. Everest, as she had. One spoke about how the musical theater classes she teaches at a small public college help her students learn so much more than show tunes. A Native American poet spun a gripping piece of word-art out of thin air. Her theme, how we treat each other, acknowledged the wide gulf between the kind of people who would bail the night before the event, and those of us who stayed and shared our ideas and learned from each other.

Yes, it’s lovely to stand on a big stage in front of a velvet curtain and all. But it’s far lovelier—and leaves a more lasting impression—to say something meaningful. If you’re not doing that, no shoes in the world will save you.

I’ll be offering a program on Speechwriting for Speakers starting in January. If you’d like more information, send me a note through this form.

Creativity Corner #6 — Creative despair

I was so psyched for Thanksgiving weekend. Not just for the turkey and stuffing, but for the FOUR DAYS of unscheduled time, most of which I planned to spend with this personal project I’ve been working on. And then I fell into the Pit. You know which pit I mean: creative despair. Nearly 350 years ago, writer John Bunyan called it the Slough of Despond. When a man falls into it, Bunyan wrote,

“there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place; and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.”

Yes, this Thanksgiving in addition to turkey and stuffing I had a triple-helping of “fears, doubts, and discouraging apprehensions” about my writing. I’m sure Bunyan had them too, which is how he knew so much about the Slough of Despond—but he climbed out of it and published a book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which has been in print continuously since the first edition in the 1670s. If you thought your work would have even half that long a life, you’d climb out of the pit and get back to work, wouldn’t you?

cover of Austin Kleon's book Keep GoingIf only it were that easy. I tried all the tricks I know: I called a writer friend and requested a pep talk. She reassured me and then we talked through what had thrown me in the Pit. I grabbed a book that’s been sitting on my shelf since its publication last spring—Austin Kleon’s Keep Going, excellent medicine for what ailed me. I turned to Dale Trumbore’s inspiring book about creation and anxiety, Staying Composed. I also went to movies and walked the dog and watched Law & Order: SVU marathons, and knitted.

And I wrote. For 15 minutes every single day, even when I definitely did not want to. Even if it was crap—which it mostly was. Even though every phrase I wrote seemed to say, in that taunting schoolyard lilt, “You’ll never solve your PROB-lem. You’ll never solve your PROB-lem.”

And then I did. I wrote something, partially inspired by my writer-friend’s pep talk, and I took it to my writing group and they agreed: it solved my PROB-lem. And I was out of the Pit and making progress once more.

I hate the Pit, but I know you can’t get to creativity without some creative despair. It’s inevitable. Climbing back out of the Pit is not inevitable, but only because so many people give up once they fall in. I knew that as long as I kept writing, I had a chance at getting out. And so do you.

Keep Going. It’s not just a good book, it’s great advice.

Rehearse and rehearse

“Four weeks, you rehearse and rehearse,
Three weeks and it couldn’t be worse,
One week—will it ever be right?
Then out of the hat, it’s that big first night.”

Hat tip to the ineffable Cole Porter, whose work I’ve loved for decades. I even sang those very words in a long-ago summer production of Kiss Me, Kate! (I played the maid.) So I am no stranger to rehearsal. I’ve even given a speech or two myself, and rehearsed those just as I advise my clients to.

man and a woman rehearsing a dance moveBut this process of rehearsing for my TEDx debut Sunday has been positively excruciating. I wrote the speech in a burst of inspiration back in October, but did I start learning it then? I’m sure you know the answer to that.

I corralled a bunch of colleagues to stay a few minutes after our in-person meeting last week so I could deliver the speech to a live audience. (Fenway has heard it lots but doesn’t offer much feedback.) Did I learn it then? Does two pages count?

For the last week I have been trying to stuff at least one page of text into my head every day. I finally have the whole 6.5 pages in there with less than four days to go. But now instead of spitting out a page or two at a time, I have to rehearse the whole thing, start to finish, however many times I can do it until I bore myself to sleep.

Next up will be finding the right shoes—running through the speech wearing each of the candidates. Then wearing the whole outfit. Then doing it while walking the dog, doing my dishes, walking around my house swinging my arms.

And each time my brain begs me to stop, I offer a silent apology to every client I’ve ever prodded to rehearse their speeches. I’m sorry if your rehearsals are as achingly boring as mine. But I’d rather rehearse myself to tears than step out on that stage and forget what I’m there to say.

I bet you would, too.