Katharine Hayhoe — stories drive change

“How can I talk to people who don’t accept the truth about climate change?” That may not be exactly what the audience member asked the dudes from Pod Save America on a recent episode, but it’s close enough. Their answer—again, not verbatim: Stories drive change.

The questioner had asked particularly about climate science: How can her relatives not understand the source of the havoc we are unleashing on our environment—catastrophic hurricanes, fires, flood. So far everything but a plague of locusts.

Usually those encounters go one of two ways:

  1. Are you crazy?
  2. The median temperature of the earth has risen X degrees in the last 20 years.

When’s the last time you had a productive conversation with someone who called you crazy?

I didn’t think so.

And when’s the last time you listened to someone rattle off a string of numbers and didn’t fall asleep? Or start thinking about something more interesting, like when you’re going to run out of clean underwear. Or whether the lettuce on sale will last more than a day and a half.

As I’ve said more than once, if you want people to remember what you’re saying you need to tell a story.

Stories drive change

stories drive change
Katharine Hayhoe and a friend, from her Twitter profile

One of the Pod Save America hosts, Tommy Vietor I think, mentioned a name I hadn’t heard before: Katharine Hayhoe. He said she has the ability to turn facts into stories that connect with people on the other side of the climate change debate. And more importantly, that her stories drive change.

Vietor isn’t the only member of the Katharine Hayhoe fan club:

“Katharine Hayhoe is a national treasure,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. He said that she combined powerful communications skills, world-class scientific credentials and an ability to relate to conservative religious communities that can be skeptical about the risks of a changing climate.

That’s from a 2016 New York Times article about her. So is this:

“…she has found that she gets her science across more effectively if she can connect with people personally. In a nation seemingly addicted to argument as a blood sport, she conciliates. On a topic so contentious that most participants snarl, she smiles. She is an evangelical Christian, and she does not flinch from using the language of faith and stewardship to discuss the fate of the planet.”

Use the language your audience speaks. Connect with the people you’re speaking with. Be human. Be vulnerable. Be authentic. And use concrete examples that everyone can understand.

Can stories drive change—really? Check out the quote from Hayhoe that closes the Times article:

“I don’t believe in climate change,” she said. Belief doesn’t come into it; scientific verification does.

“Gravity doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not,” she said, “but if you step off a cliff, you’re going to go down.”

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.

How can I help? — Frequent Questions

Q: How can I help?
A: Pick an issue and dive in.

It’s no secret: the challenges our country and our world face seem to be multiplying faster than rabbits. Or, to update that analogy to the 21st century, faster than malware-infected bots.

The only way I know to counter the human malware operating in so many people these days is by making personal connections and broadening people’s frames of reference. By talking, and listening. Educating.

Heather McGhee, the president of Demos, told an interesting story on this Monday’s episode of “Pod Save America.” She was speaking on a C-SPAN show one day last year and a viewer called in with an unexpected question. He was scared of black people, he said. How could he deal with this? McGhee, who is a woman of color, gave him some action items (among them: read history; change your news outlets). He embarked on a project to broaden his own horizons, reached out to McGhee via Twitter to thank her. And they struck up a friendship. Who knows how many minds he will change?

Of course, not every racist is open to a conversation like that. Some need a little more overt direction to change. And that’s one of the things the Southern Poverty Law Center does so well. In its 46-year history, it has fought for equity for people of color, LGBT people, students, you name it.

Help — for the Southern Poverty Law Center & for yourself

helpSo when my colleague Emily Levy said she wanted to put together a fund-raiser for the SPLC, I only had one question: How can I help?

She’s gathered together a group of coaches and consultants to offer VIP Days to their clients and pledge a earmark portion of the proceeds for the SPLC. I’m offering two VIP packages for the cause—with a potential donation of $1,200 to help this vital organization continue its work.

Click here for more information about my VIP Day package.

And check out the other offerings here.

Book your package by September 15th and schedule your VIP Day by October 31st. You’ve been meaning to spruce up your creativity, your business, your life. Now you can get the help you want and benefit an excellent cause.

Any questions?

I love podcasts — and you might too

I love podcasts — I love listening to them and I love being interviewed on them.

Regular readers have already heard me sing the praises of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. Gladwell doesn’t just deliver a fascinating story each week, he also offers a subtle lesson in how to write well. Well? Brilliantly.

I talk a lot about the importance of reading good writing. Gladwell reminds me that it’s equally important—actually, maybe more so—to listen to good writing.

i love podcastsI should have mentioned Revisionist History when Pete Mockaitis, the host of the podcast How to Be Awesome at Your Job, asked me about good material to read. Guess I was in a literal mood that day. And while pretty much every episode of Revisionist History would make a damn fine book, it’s still a podcast.

I love Gladwell’s podcast so much that I included it in the “great writing” I analyze for the writers who subscribe to my Weekly What program. You’ll hear more about that tomorrow. But—seriously—when was the last time you heard a podcast put together with enough thought that it deserved a deep analysis? Yeah, I thought so. If you haven’t heard Revisionist History yet, start here at episode one. You’re welcome.

I love podcasts (lots of podcasts)

I also love more anarchic podcasts, like the ones from the Crooked Media stable. Actually,  Pod Save the World, Pod Save the People, and Friends Like These have too much structure to call them “anarchic.” Lovett or Leave It, Jon Lovett’s podcast, has been gradually acquiring more structure, although the lineup of guest comedians remains hit-or-miss. (This episode, however, shines.) But their flagship show, Pod Save America, feels like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation between some really smart friends.

Whatever the format, I listen because—well, because Lovett and Jon Favreau are speechwriters. Ya gotta support the tribe, right? And because I appreciate the insights of all of the “Crooked” podcast hosts in these baffling, frustrating, and scary times.

But there’s a qualitative difference between podcasts that capture free-flowing conversation and tightly scripted podcasts like Gladwell’s. It’s the difference between watching a baseball game and a baseball documentary. Both tell stories, but the stories may be a little harder to tease out from the live event. Unless a junior league outfielder falls over the fence in pursuit of a sure home run and catches the baseball. Now, that’s a story.

Anyway, you can catch up on all my podcasts here. Can you tell the difference between the ones I prepped for and the ones where I winged it? Whatever the format, I’m just happy to be contributing to this fabulous new medium. Because—I’m not sure if I mentioned this: I love podcasts.

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.

Courage and failure: “…you have to be willing to lose”

What does courage have to do with failure? Quite a lot, to judge by recent interviews with two successful women. Today’s example comes from journalist Katie Couric.

On her own podcast—which I heard when she “crossed over” to Pod Save America—Katie Couric talked about her late sister, who ran for state office in Virginia. Couric’s sister told her,

“When you run for office, you have to be willing to lose.”

Couric translated that as “You have to be true to yourself and to your core values and principles and let the chips fall where they may.”

Courage isn’t about the middle ground

We don’t often see that kind of courage in the political world.

Instead of standing up for their own beliefs, candidates instead trumpet the “least objectionable” beliefs, as determined by an endless succession of focus groups. A politician running to win would naturally attract a tribe of dedicated supporters, emotionally invested in the outcome.

But more often, politicians run to “not lose.” With no firm positions to rally around, their electoral strategy depends on maintaining a fragile coalition of people they can keep happy with vague promises. The promises have to be vague, right? Because the minute they become concrete, someone—on the right or the left—will get offended. And someone else wins the election.

But don’t we all lose when that happens? Once you run on vague promises, you’re stuck with vague solutions. If you intend to run again, you can’t ever leave the safety of ambiguity.

Katie Couric’s sister may have said it in the context of electoral politics—”When you run for office, you have to be willing to lose”—but I think this works as a mantra for any of us. Especially when we’re sticking a toe—or more—out of our comfort zone.

You can’t take a risk if you’re not willing to fail.

Tomorrow: Another podcast, another badass risk-taking woman.

Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

The Speed of Democracy Unwinding — “Pod Save the World”

the 3/8/17 episode asks about the speed of democracy unwindingYesterday I caught up with the latest episode of Pod Save the World, a foreign policy-focused spinoff from the folks behind Pod Save America. (You may remember I wrote about Pod Save America just the other day.) The guest, Mike McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, offered some sobering thoughts about the speed at which one might see democracy unwinding.

McFaul and the podcast’s host, Tommy Vietor, were with the State Department during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2010. Vietor noted that while many of his colleagues felt optimistic that major democratic reforms might take place, McFaul had been cautious—noting that democracy requires generations to take root.

The obvious question for the Ambassador today—and I found myself holding my breath when Vietor asked it—is, given that it takes generations for democracies to established…

“…do you feel hopeful or not hopeful about the speed with which democracies can unwind?”

The first words out of the Ambassador’s mouth:

“Honestly, I’m worried.”


Democracy unwinding — don’t acquiesce.

Ambassador McFaul noted some similarities between Putin—who also never ran for elected office before becoming Russia’s leader—and the Republican now occupying the White House: both pledged to cut taxes and both declared the press the enemy. Putin followed through on his promise to cut taxes, and took over the state media in relatively short order.

“And in that period people were like, ‘Well, we need law and order. We had this tumultuous period. Let’s give him a break'”

Ambassador McFaul says he talked to some Russian friends recently and they identified two major mistakes in their approach to Putin:

“We were too quick to acquiesce to what he was doing and we were thinking it would all taper out. And we didn’t resist when we had the power.”

More ominously, they added:

“And then later, we didn’t have the power and we tried to resist and it was too late.”

I added the emphasis there, although I probably didn’t need to.

The good-ish news here is that we are resisting. Yes, the Women’s Marches were planned weeks in advance, but the airport protests of the first attempt at a Muslim ban sprang up almost instantaneously. If there’s any silver lining in this mess, it’s that Americans are more engaged and vocal than we’ve ever been before.

Our long-term relationship with democracy is in trouble. I guess it’s like any relationship—get too complacent and one morning you wake up with divorce papers on your pillow. Maybe you can patch things up, but it’s much better not to let the estrangement get this far to begin with.

The U.S. has a solid foundation

Still, our current situation is not completely analogous to Russia’s at the dawn of Putin’s reign. Ambassador McFaul pointed out:

“Our institutions, our opposition party, our U.S. Congress, our press, our courts, our federal system, our elected leaders at the state level are way more robust than Russian similar institutions back in 2000. And our society seems willing to push back…in a way that Russian society was not willing to do. So I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Optimistic—as long as we don’t slip back into complacency, we might stop democracy unwinding.

“I’m optimistic in the long run,” the ambassador repeated:

“But I think vigilance now in the short run will help us avoid these more difficult times.”

I pray he’s right.

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.

Meet Jon Favreau — newest guest at my imaginary dinner party

Jon Favreau, my latest imaginary dinner party guest
Jon Favreau, photo by The White House from Washington, DC – P021213PS-0265, Public Domain

Who would you invite to an imaginary dinner party? My guest list changed after reading the article I’m writing about today. Welcome Jon Favreau, former Director of Speechwriting for President Obama; I hope you’re not an imaginary vegetarian.

I’ve been a Favreau fan (a “Favan”?) for a while now. The podcast he and some cronies from the Obama Administration cooked up—Pod Save America—restores my sanity twice a week. I thought for sure I’d already blogged about their interview with President Obama, the last media interview he did as president. I will correct that oversight ASAP.

But another oversight I will correct immediately: Jon Favreau’s co-conspirators on Pod Save America are speechwriters Dan Pfeiffer, Tommy Vietor, and the (I’m sure he would describe himself as) indispensable Jon Lovett.

Jon Favreau also has a name doppelgänger, an actor
Actual Google search results for “Elaine Bennett”

I feel some affinity for Lovett, who will surely go through life being mistaken for Jon Lovitz. (Has the letter H somehow become a pariah? Um, pariah. Whatever happened to “John”?) But at least Lovitz is a real person; I’m fated to remain second in the Google search to a sitcom character.

Jon Favreau—not just a pretty face

Favreau’s invitation to my imaginary dinner has nothing to do with his boyish good looks. Or the fact that, come to think of it, he too has a name doppelgänger, a movie producer.

Nope, I’m passing the dinner rolls to Favs because we think about writing in the same way. Clearly he’s a smart dude.

This LinkedIn post by Trevor Ambrose—“Obama’s Speechwriter Shares 5 Storytelling Tips”—summarizes some of what makes Favreau’s speeches so effective. But they’re not just valuable tips for speechwriters: any writer can and should embrace these best practices.

1 – Story is key

Ambrose quotes Favreau:

“In my experience communications too often focuses on finding the right words. Of course words are important at some point in the process. But the first question you have to ask yourself is: what is the story I’m trying to sell? That is essential, and should be the starting point.”

“What is the story I’m trying to sell?” Focus on telling a story and the facts and data will slot themselves in, reinforcing the narrative. Focus on reporting facts and data and you’ll never get to the story—and the idea you’re trying to convey will never take root in the listeners’ or readers’ minds.

Too many people believe that facts are the story. Too many people end up creating boring, eminently forgettable work.

2 – Short & simple

“…a speech about everything is a speech about nothing. Narrow your story down to the essential point.”

Easier said than done, especially when you’re trying to incorporate language and feedback from many stakeholders. Even when you have only one client to please, it’s a tough sell. People seem to feel that the more they talk, the smarter they’ll sound. I’m still working on the right way to convince them otherwise. Jon Favreau and I will surely trade war stories about this over imaginary dinner.

3 – Inoculate yourself against criticism

“You should find [objections] and address them during your speech.”

I believe I let out an audible whoop when President Obama inoculated himself against critics of his efforts to halt climate change. This passage comes from his 2015 State of the Union Address. And I guess the fact that I remember it two years later negates my argument that speeches stuffed full of ideas can’t be memorable. No speech gets stuffed fuller than a State of the Union; perhaps it’s the exception that proves the rule.

Anyway, in 2015 President Obama told Congress:

“I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities.

Unfortunately for our planet, the current Republican administration is defunding those “really good scientists.” Unfortunately for our language—and our liberties—the current president inoculates himself by spouting blatant lies. Convince enough of your base that the mainstream media lies and can anything they say or write damage you? I look forward to the imaginary discussion Favs and I will have on how (whether?) we can counter this strategy.

4 – Understand and speak to your audience

“You have to know what the world looks like when you are in [the audience’s] shoes. One of the reasons why Obama’s speeches are so successful is because they are written in the language that his audience understands, addressing the issues they are facing.”

I often run into clients who are eager to show off the bright, shiny idea their company came up with. But “Isn’t this cool?” doesn’t work as a speech premise. You have to show the audience—and note that I said show, not tell—how the cool new thing will solve their problems. And you have to do it in language they understand.There’s no point in extolling the virtues of your new creation if no one knows what it is or what it does.

Political writers have an even harder job—they have to bring abstract, often complex concepts to life in ways that resonate with audiences who have a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Oh, and if you don’t do your job well, the polar ice caps could melt and drown Miami. But, hey—no pressure.

5 – Jon Favreau wants to connect

Of course I mean he wants his speaker to connect, and inspire. And what’s the best way to do that? See #1: Tell stories. But not just any stories:

“The best way to connect with people is through stories that are important to people’s lives.”

What’s with the dinner party, anyway?

Sometimes I ask my webinar participants to imagine their own dinner parties. I love the exercise because the first time I did it (hat-tip to Samantha Bennett, my imaginary cousin and an inspirational teacher), the reveal at the end just gobsmacked me. If you’d like to try it for yourself, I’ve uploaded a clip of it to Vimeo. Enjoy.