Hitting the word-lottery — David Litt, presidential speechwriter

What were you doing when you were 24 years old? I’ll tell you what you weren’t doing–because very few 24-year-olds ever do it. Heck, very few people of any age get to do it. One guy hit the word-lottery when he became a presidential speechwriter, just a few years out of college.

Okay, David Litt may have been slightly older than 24 when he started writing for President Barack Obama. His first gig at the White House was writing for Obama’s longtime advisor Valerie Jarrett. Time and attrition moved him ever closer to the Oval Office.

The president’s “real” speechwriters tossed him a small assignment from time to time. And then one day in Obama’s second term, Litt found himself not just a presidential speechwriter, but a “Senior Advisor to the President.” On the one hand, people commonly abbreviated that title to SAP. He was a SAP. On the other hand, he got his own key to the senior staff gym.

presidential speechwriterDavid Litt’s new book, Thanks, Obama: My Hopey Changey White House Years (A Speechwriter’s Memoir) is as delightful as its title. It manages to be both funny and informative.

While the job he did had serious implications, Litt never seems to take himself too seriously. To hear him tell it, he came perilously close to losing his job several times. But he also Spoke Truth to Power and made President Obama laugh so hard that Litt sensed he forgot he was president. Just for a second.

Presidential Speechwriter, rookie mistake

One of my favorite stories involves one of Litt’s first assignments for the president–a short speech about Infrastructure.

Litt made a rookie mistake–and he comes across as so charming in the book that I won’t stop to wonder how you get to be a presidential speechwriter and still be making rookie mistakes.

Anyway, Litt dove headfirst into researching this infrastructure speech. He knew the American infrastructure, like, down to the last rivet. And he put all of his new-found knowledge into the draft.

Beware the Curse of Knowledge. As the Heath Brothers tell us in Made to Stick, you have to remember who your audience is–and who your speaker is. An audience of engineers may have appreciated the draft Litt turned in; an engineer delivering the speech might have knocked it out of the park.

But it wasn’t an engineer giving the speech, it was President Obama. And not only does he not know the granular details Litt packed into his draft, no one wants to hear the president deliver granular details. They want the president to uplift them, to inspire them, to speak about the large picture, about how the United States depends on a healthy infrastructure and by golly we’re going to take care of that.

I’ve fallen into the same trap–I once tried to get a businessman to reference Aristotle. No dice. I knew better, but it seemed so perfect. Just this once, I told myself. My lovely idea died a swift death in review. As it should have.

If you want to learn more about how speechwriting works, if you want to peek inside the Obama White House, or if you just want a compelling read, Thanks, Obama will hook you from page one.

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The challenge with Bible-writing

challenge of bible-writing“We want this to be the Bible for our [Insert Your Innovation Here].” When people say they want something to be “the Bible”—they mean they want it to be comprehensive, to contain anything a person would want to know on any aspect of the subject. But that’s the challenge with Bible-writing: How do you take a massive information download and create something people actually want to read?

Now, please understand—I mean no disrespect to people who turn to the actual Bible for religious inspiration. But it does break some pretty fundamental rules of story-telling. I mean, let’s be honest: do we really need all of those “begats”?

And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth: 4 And the days of Adam after he had begotten Seth were eight hundred years: and he begat sons and daughters:5 And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died. 6 And Seth lived an hundred and five years, and begat Enos: 7 And Seth lived after he begat Enos eight hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters.

And so it continues for the whole rest of Genesis, Chapter 5—and good luck remembering them all. Most of those folks never appear in the text again—violating a primary rule of writing a memorable story: don’t clutter it with extraneous information.

Bible-writing — is everything essential?

Does your corporate “bible” need that level of detail?

Bob got the idea for the new app while in a meeting with Jenny, who’s been with the firm since she got her engineering degree. And Jenny brought along Hal and Susie, the key members of her team. Bob invited people from his team as well…

Or even this level of detail?

First we tried X, yielding Y results. Then we moved to X+1, which brought us to…

That last sentence contains the seeds of something you want to include in your “bible”—but you need to plant those seeds in the fertile soil of a great story.

What challenges did you encounter with X that prompted your move to X+1? Start with the sticking point and let the reader see how you navigated around it.

Make your stories stick

If your “bible” documents a complex, multiyear process, make sure it contains lots and lots stories (as the original Bible does). But which stories?

Use the SUCCESs mnemonic from the Heath Brothers’ book Made to Stick and look for:


Think about the Bible stories you remember:

Abraham and the burning bush—God asks him to kill his son (unexpected); he nearly does it (emotional).

The birth of Jesus: homeless people seek shelter (simple); woman goes into labor (unexpected, concrete—parents of every generation understand what that entails); healthy baby born (emotional).

There’s a reason these stories have endured for millennia.

Find the stories like that in the work you’re documenting. Every corporate endeavor has inflection points where people wonder, try, and maybe even fail—before they eventually succeed enough to write a “bible” about it.

That’s the stuff that will get people reading—and remembering—all of the hard work you’re documenting. And, as regular readers have heard me ask before: If you don’t want to be remembered, then why are you bothering to write this stuff in the first place?

Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

Ssssh! Don’t tell! — the right way to convey a story

Sometimes I think instead of storytelling, maybe we should talk about storyshowing. “Tell” just sends the wrong message. It’s one-sided. I tell the story; you listen. Where’s the fun in that?

storyShowing is a much more participatory activity. I give you a narrative; you instinctively fit yourself into it, taking the pieces and manipulating them in your mind until you’ve created your own story from them. Once you’ve done that, the story is in your brain, ready to be used and repurposed as needed. And pretty much nothing is going to dislodge it. Stories stick, as the Heath Brothers demonstrate in their book Made to Stick.

And what if I tell you only part of the story? That makes it even stickier, as your brain scrambles to fill the gaps.

Showing activates a whole different sequence than telling. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to an actual neuroscientist. And think about this the next time you’re tempted to tell instead of show: Telling gives you one shot at giving the information to your audience. But showing—storyshowing—elicits a chain reaction in your listeners’ brains—and in their listeners’ as well.

It’s quite a responsibility. But I think you’re up for it.

How do I lose the academic writing style? —Frequent Questions

Q: How do I lose the academic writing style?
A: Stop writing.

I know my initial answers to these Frequent Questions tend toward the flippant, but with this one I’m dead serious.

One of the best ways to knock the stuffiness out of your writing style is to talk through your ideas. Write out loud.

Now, I’m not talking about improvising. Please in the name of all that is good, do not improvise your talk. Unless you’re a member of Second City or the Upright Citizens Brigade, in which case I wish you Godspeed.

But unless you speak like an academic 24/7, you should be able to find a more informal way to talk through your ideas. Try it as if you were chatting with a colleague. (But make sure it’s someone you like.) Record your conversation, transcribe it, and the next day go back and sort out the great stuff you can use as is, the stuff you can make great with a little tinkering, and the stuff that needs to go in the Outtakes folder I’ve written about before.

Once you’ve translated your thoughts into English from the original Academese, make sure the level of detail works for your audience. Have you fallen afoul of the Curse of Knowledge the Heath Brothers talk about in their book Made to Stick? If you think you may be getting into the weeds with details, find a bright 10-year-old (real or imaginary) and talk through your ideas again.

Academic writing won’t fly when you’re out of school

Academics are not the only people who write like academics. Anyone who’s been trained by an academic will write like one, too. At least until they hit the real world and realize no one’s reading what they write.

After I spoke at the conference last weekend, several people told me that writing frustrated them because they hadn’t been able to shake the academic writing style.

That’s an easy fix: Just write more. And not just about work. Go outside your lane once in a while and write something completely different—a poem, a silly story, a meditation on the letter U.

Just 15 minutes a day will make a huge difference over time.

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Art and Gap Th_ _ ry — Song for a Sunday

I don’t mean to hit you with behavioral science first thing on a Sunday morning. We’re supposed to be talking about songs, right? My weekly “Song for a Sunday” post. But when I was prepping the material for my writing program session this week, I remembered a beautiful song and it’s the perfect illustration of Gap Theory. So here’s a song and a writing discussion for you: two blogs for the price of one.

So what is Gap Theory—or, as I like to call it, “Gap Th_ _ry”?

I wanted to Google y’all a fancy definition, but I see I need to be more specific. Apparently there’s a “gap theory” in Creationism, to explain a whole bunch of stuff God did in between the first and second verses of the Bible. Not the first and second books, mind you—verses. As in:

1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Then, according to the Gap Theory, a whole bunch of un-written-about stuff happens offstage—which is a really terrible way to tell a story, by the way—until we pick back up with:

2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

To translate for anyone unfamiliar with the permutations of evangelical Christianity: A bunch of folks who claim to take the Bible literally have literally invented a whole back-story to fill in the teeny-tiny space between the period at the end of Genesis 1:1 and the capital T that starts 1:2.

That’s their Gap Theory, not mine. But—hey—I guess this post is now semi-appropriate for a Sunday. Or a Saturday, depending on whether you read your Bible left-to-right or right-to-left. But let’s get back on track.

Gap Theory and Behavioral Science

Aaah…that’s better. It turns out the “Gap Theory” that Chip Heath & Dan Heath talk about in their book Made to Stick is actually called the “Information-Gap Theory.” This theory was indeed, as the Heaths explain, articulated by George Loewenstein, a co-founder of the field of behavioral economics. (Wikipedia adds the delicious detail that his middle name is Freud.)

The Heath Brothers write that curiosity creates knowledge gaps, and

“Loewenstein argues that gaps cause pain. When we want to know something but don’t, it’s like having an itch that we need to scratch. To take away the pain, we need to fill the knowledge gap.”

So if you want a sure-fire way to capture and keep your audience’s attention, open up a knowledge gap and take your sweet time filling it.

Charles Dickens understood this in the 19th century when he published his novels in serial installments with a cliffhanger ending each one. Aaron Spelling understood this a hundred years later when he made Dallas fans hold their breath for months wondering “Who shot J.R.?

But writers aren’t the only creators who can capitalize on their audience’s need for completion. Musicians can, too. And also visual artists, but I’ll save that for another post.

And that brings us to the song

the Roches' arrangement taught me a musical application of gap theory

Back in the day when music only existed on record albums, I had an album I loved by The Roches, three sisters who sang tight, unexpected harmonies. And every time I listened to that album—every time—when the first side ended, I had to stop what I was doing and turn the album over to hear the second side.

This was not always as easy as it sounds, as back in the day one used to stack albums five or six deep on turntables. So I’d have to stop the music altogether, unthread the albums from the pole in the middle of the turntable, fish out The Roches’ album, turn it over, and put it on the bottom of the pile. Eventually I wised up and just kept it in permanent residence on top.

Why did I go through all that trouble? Because The Roches had opened up a gap: they ended the first side of the album with an unresolved chord.

I loved the song, “On the Road to Fairfax County,” but it also drove me crazy. And my brain couldn’t let go of the gap until I heard them properly resolve an ending.

Hear for yourselves.

By the way, the lovely lady in the green jacket, Maggie Roche, passed away earlier this year—leaving a gap no amount of knowledge can fill.

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.

Curses and communication roadblocks

I’m not talking about curses like the F-word—although they certainly can be communication roadblocks. Nor am I talking about the kind of curses that require professional removal. I could be talking about that kind of curse, though, since I just listened to a delightful conversation in which Erik Vance told Tim Ferriss about the time he paid a Mexican witch-doctor to curse (and, a week later, un-curse) him.

No, I’m talking about the Curse of Knowledge, the phenomenon Chip Heath and Dan Heath so beautifully explained in their classic Made to Stick.

My clients create complexity, using their MBA-honed brains to dream up new products, services, and processes. And that’s fine, as long as they talk amongst themselves.

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-3-25-34-pmBut when they need to reach a wider audience, they turn to me. Because, cursed with too much knowledge, they can’t explain their nifty new products, services, and processes clearly enough to a wider audience. They can’t reset their brains to “factory default”—the state of not knowing about this nifty new thing. But I can. Because I come to the problem with fresh eyes.

Communication roadblocks: Do as I say, not as I do

When I write for my clients, I can spot communication roadblocks like the Curse of Knowledge from 20 yards away. But in my own work…

[Shaking, as the kids say, My Damn Head.]

I wanted to help people discover how to improve their writing, so they can get to where they want to go in the business world. Great idea, right?

Yes—if you already love writing. But for people who don’t write, maybe it’s because they don’t like to write. Maybe they’re scared of it. Scared they can’t do it; scared no one wants to read what they have to say. Who knows, maybe scared of changing the ink cartridge in the printer. Doesn’t matter. What matters is they’re scared, and serene in the Curse of Knowledge, I completely forgot to explain writing in terms they can understand.

I used to be scared, too. Of course, now you can hardly tear my fingers away from the keyboard. I write for myself and for my clients, and I’m very happy doing it.

Writing takes courage, yes. But you don’t need enough courage to write an entire novel. All you need is the courage to place your fingers on the keyboard and press down gently for 15 minutes a day. Most of what you write will be awful. That doesn’t matter—no one needs to see it.

But press on that keyboard enough and some of what you write will start to be good. But I can guarantee it will never start to be good if you don’t start to write.


Storytelling and Problem-Solving

The other day I came across a quotation attributed to Pablo Picasso: “I am always doing that which I cannot do in order that I may learn how to do it.”

He sounds so cheerful about it, doesn’t he? But problem-solving is hard. If tackling something were easy, I suppose we wouldn’t call it a problem.

Fortunately, we have at our disposal a way to help our colleagues and audiences tackle their challenges: We can tell stories.

Now, I know about the old canard that when you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Yes, I talk about storytelling a lot. But I’m not the only person who sees stories as a great tool for problem-solving. Here I quote from the gospel of Make It Stick by the marketing evangelists Chip Heath and Dan Heath:

“Stories are like mental flight simulators; they allow us to rehearse problems and become better at dealing with them.”

Stories get into our brains in a very different way than facts do. And they stay there—they’re “sticky,” in the Heaths’ term.   Certain skills may need to be taught more analytically, but not every problem can be solved with a calculator.

I write a lot about business ethics for my clients—it’s one of my favorite topics. Virtually every company has developed a Code of Conduct it expects its employees to adhere to. And some industries have regulations imposed on them by government or other agencies. Employees sign contracts specifying that they’ve read and understood this information, but no one could possibly retain all of it. You don’t remember rules; you remember stories.

Think of the 10 Commandments—arguably the most famous and widely read “Code of Conduct” in the world. Can you list them all? If you’re like most people, you’ll get through two or three at the most.

The story of the 10 Commandments is easy to remember—Moses (or, depending on your age and degree of religiosity, Charlton Heston) climbs the mountain alone, while his people wait expectantly below. The Lord descends in a pillar of smoke and delivers two stone tablets containing the law. This is powerful stuff; no Ethics & Compliance Department can compare.

And yet you still can’t name all 10 without Googling.

So, how do you make your corporate “commandments” stickier? Turn them into stories.

Tell cautionary tales about how rule-breakers meet their fate. Tell funny stories—yes, I said funny stories. I know ethics is serious business, but do you want people to remember your stories or not? So tell stories that will make your listeners or readers smile, even as they store the information in their mental “don’t do this” file. Tell real stories—your own or others’—that get at the emotions involved: the frustration at being confronted with an unethical behavior, the dismay of needing to sort through the numerous “gray areas” we encounter every day to find the path to something closer to the right decision.

What do you think about when you hit those gray areas? Do you mentally shuffle through hundreds of pages of regulations written in legalese? Or do you remember that story about Joe and how he handled a similar situation?

Tell stories. Early and often. You won’t regret it.

Fast food, faster message: Wendy’s one-word answer

How powerful is a one-word answer? Very. (Okay, maybe not every one-word answer.) But if you want people to remember your message, the fewer words, the better.

What's Wendy's mission? Founder Dave Thomas offers a one-word answer

I’m not big on fast food, but I found myself in a Wendy’s last Saturday, and after I finished my (surprisingly good) hamburger, I looked up and found this mission statement on the wall, a quote from the chain’s late founder, Dave Thomas:

All of Wendy’s spins off one word: FRESH

It reminded me of a story Chip Heath and Dan Heath tell in their invaluable book Made to Stick. Herb Kelleher, a legendary CEO of Southwest Airlines, once told someone:

“I can teach you the secret to running this airline in thirty seconds. This is it: We are THE low-fare airline. Once you understand that fact, you can make any decision about this company’s future as well as I can.”

Wendy’s employees have even less to remember. They only need that one word—FRESH—to guide their actions.

A one-word answer sticks

Companies tend to write wordy, multi-part mission statements. But the more ideas you present, the less memorable each one becomes. (The Heath Brothers discuss that bit of wisdom in their book, too.) When you’re tempted to add more ideas to your mission statement, stop writing and ask yourself a different question: What’s the mission of my mission statement?

If you answer, “To make sure every department and stakeholder feels included,” then by all means keep adding clauses and bullet points. And adjectives, don’t forget the adjectives.

But if the point of your mission statement is to give your people clarity about your expectations and goals, get out the red pen and start eliminating all of the extraneous stuff.

How much more power does one sentence pack? “We are THE low-fare airline.” Really, what else does anyone need to know?

And if you can boil your mission down to a one-word answer, even better.

Short sentences—the gold nuggets of writing

Writing short sentences and snappy, to-the-point paragraphs is not nearly as easy as it looks. As someone said, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” That wisdom has been attributed to everyone from 17th century French mathematician Blaise Pascal to 19th century American novelist Mark Twain to that titan of 20th century statesmanship Winston Churchill.

Still, it’s worth spending time to wash away the excess verbiage to find the gold nuggets in your writing. Because short sentences pack a memorable punch.

Ernest Hemingway reportedly wrote a “novel” in only six words: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” I’ve suggested the phrase “micro-story” to describe the kind of short sentence so rich in description that it evokes an emotion. Hillary Clinton’s convention speech contained one:

“Way too many dreams die in the parking lots of banks.”

You can feel it—can’t you?—the disappointment of an entrepreneur just denied funding for their dream. Data points generally exit our brains as quickly as they enter. But those dying dreams will stay with listeners a long while. Why?

As the Heath Brothers, Chip and Dan, remind us in their book Made to Stick:

“We are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions.”

And you don’t need 10,000 words to create a feeling. Secretary Clinton did it with just 11. But that’s practically an epic in the world of short sentences.

How low can you go?

Wordcount-wise, I mean. How many words does it take to be memorable? I’ll offer you two examples.

First, this year’s winner of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. British novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton built a reputation—and a remarkable readership back in Victorian times—for stuffing his writing so full of words as to render it almost unreadable. My favorite entry this year is one of the runners-up, by Neal T. Godden:

“After his seventh shot of Jack Daniels, Billy reflected that only a certain kind of man, a Roman Catholic priest, born under the sign of Gemini, whose loved one had been run down by a bus full of inebriated Lazio supporters on a glorious Sunday morning in early April outside a provincial church whose bells were ringing Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in B minor, would truly be able to understand the abyss of despair in which he was drowning.”

That there’s a bunch of words. But what does it mean? You have to re-read it several times. Or maybe just skip to the last clause: Ah! The protagonist is unhappy.

Contrast with this:

“I think this may require therapy.”

That six-word gem comes from a blogger who goes by the name Alto. He’s created a feature called The Saturday Six, in which he posts a few six-word stories and invites his readers to add their own in the comments.

Next time you think more words equal more meaning, pay a visit to Mr. Bulwer-Lytton. And if you think you can’t say much without saying a lot, check out The Saturday Six. Short sentences create big impact.

The Art of the Detail-Free Communication

The Trump campaign touted its candidate’s April 27th foreign policy speech—creatively titled, according to Trump’s own website, Donald J. Trump Foreign Policy Speech—as having been written by an actual speechwriter. Trump read it from a teleprompter and stuck very close to the written script. (Compare the Trump website’s text to the transcript published in The New York Times.)

Speaking with the aid of notes, we might reasonably expect the candidate to offer details about his plans. Not the nuts and bolts of $X billion here and $Y billion there—as I wrote yesterday, that level of detail numbs the mind—but the kinds of details that would establish his foreign policy goals by painting a memorable picture in his listeners’ minds.

Or not. According to CBSnews.com,

One of the members of Trump’s team, Whaled [sic] Phares, told the Associated Press beforehand that the speech would have “no details.”

And indeed, that proved true. Instead of using his words to paint pictures, Trump offered lists. Speaking of the Arab world:

…We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed. Civil war, religious fanaticism, thousands of Americans and just killed be lives, lives, lives wasted. Horribly wasted. Many trillions of dollars were lost as a result. The vacuum was created that ISIS would fill. Iran, too, would rush in and fill that void much to their really unjust enrichment.

They have benefited so much, so sadly, for us. Our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster. No vision. No purpose. No direction. No strategy.

The closest Trump came to specific policy declarations included:

“A Trump Administration will lead a free world that is properly armed and funded.”

“We will spend what we need to rebuild our military.”

“…we will look for savings and spend our money wisely.”

Few would argue against any of these sentiments. And that’s something I encounter often in my work with businesspeople. I call it “And then…?” Syndrome.

Client: “We want you to write an op-ed about how important education is.”

Me: “Great! What’s the second sentence?”

Now, I don’t expect my clients to articulate a comprehensive national education policy—that is, assuming they’re not running for president. But for me to do my job effectively, I need specifics. Education is important because: We need smart people to hire. We need a more diverse workforce. We need…what? Details! Preferably the kinds of details that arrange themselves into stories.

Businesspeople often want to “get to the point.” And the point, they think, is the pronouncement: Whether it’s my client’s “education is important” or Trump’s (and every other politician’s) “we’ll look for savings and spend money wisely.”

But pronouncements are easily forgotten; stories stick. Researcher Gary Klein talks about the ire faced when he boiled down a multi-day conference by extracting the stories the presenters told, rather than the recommendations they offered. As Chip and Dan Heath explain it in their book Made to Stick, the presenters “…felt that they’d invested countless hours into distilling their experiences into a series of recommendations.” But Klein said,

“We want to explain to them how meaningless these slogans are in contrast to stories, such as the one that showed how they had kept the lines of communication open during a difficult incident in which a plant was shut down.” [emphasis added]

Not only are stories stickier, they often the best answers emerge from a personal story. What’s the client’s relationship to the educational system? They’re the first in the family to go to college? Their parent taught fifth grade? They discovered their calling thanks to an attentive teacher?

How does that personal connection shape their perspective? That’s the value a businessperson—or any of us—can add to the debate on a national issue.