What makes a great lede great?

You want pressure? Try to write a lede for a piece about writing a great lede.

My resident critic swats away every phrase I think of. It’s like Federer vs. Nadal in my head, like Navratilova vs. Graf at the 1985 U.S. Open (still the best tennis match I’ve ever seen). Steffi seemed on the cusp of beating the then-best player the women’s game had ever seen. And Martina’s superhuman ability threatened to become merely human. I remember screaming at the television, almost with each point.

Ah…nothing like a good digression to take the pressure off. Okay, ledes.

I found this lede in an article by Chris Smith on VanityFair.com:

"Robert Mueller is not ending the summer with a tan"—a great lede

The lede paragraph is supposed to summarize the key points of the article. But is this piece really about Robert Mueller’s melanin? Or his work schedule?

No, it’s about Robert Mueller’s inexhaustible pursuit of Donald Trump. But I love the laid-back opening; it mirrors Mueller’s image. Cool. Indefatiguable. The exact opposite of the central figure he’s investigating.

Break the rules to make a great lede

“Robert Mueller is not ending the summer with a tan.” It’s not a classic lede—it breaks the all the rules of a lede for a news story—and that’s exactly what makes it a great lede.

It pulls you up short. Say what? It’s like walking past a person in a business suit wearing a gorilla head. You can’t help but notice the incongruity. You want to know why it’s there. And so you keep reading.

In a newspaper article, the lede paragraph needs to sum up the story for readers who don’t have time to keep reading. But in a profile or a magazine article, the lede needs to capture the readers’ attention and draw them deeper into the story. We may think about Robert Mueller’s work, but who thinks about his skin? It’s an incongruous detail.

Now, incongruity is great, but only in small doses. You don’t want to become the writer who starts every piece from an odd angle. Or an outright digression (see above).

Well, I didn’t actually begin with the digression, did I? That might alienate the reader. You start reading an article about the best tennis matches of all time and you end up with an instructional piece about ledes. Tennis fans would be pissed off and the writers—well, they might have skipped this post altogether. And see what you would have missed?

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.

“What am I building that lasts?” President Obama on legacy

President Obama told a great story about coming to understand the kind of legacy he could leave.

After he gave a speech in Cairo, the government flew him out for a private tour of the pyramids.

Seeing the pyramids in Egypt helped President Obama think about his legacy
Photo from History.com

Here’s how he explained it to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in last month’s Vanity Fair:

“…you’re going to these tombs and looking at the hieroglyphics and imagining the civilization that built these iconic images. And I still remember it—because I hadn’t been president that long at that point—thinking to myself, There were a lot of people during the period when these pyramids were built who thought they were really important. And there was the equivalent of cable news and television and newspapers and Twitter and people anguishing over their relative popularity or position at any given time. And now it’s all just covered in dust and sand…”

It helped him find perspective for his presidency. That what ultimately matters is not what anyone says or thinks in the moment. That’s not the stuff of legacy. Obama said:

“What is relevant is: What am I building that lasts?

And here in the United States, hopefully, what we’re building are not just pyramids, are not icons to one pharaoh. What we’re building is a culture and a way of living together that we can look back on and say, [This] was good, was inclusive, was kind, was innovative, was able to fulfill the dreams of as many people as possible.”

The legacy of “good, inclusive, kind, innovative”

The president had his sit-down with Goodwin before the election, when the values of goodness, inclusivity, kindness, and innovation seemed as solidly rooted in our culture as the pyramids are in the sands of Egypt. At least they seemed that way to many of us. Which is why the tide of vitriol and hatred the election unleashed just gobsmacked us. (By “us” here I mean straight white people, or those of us who unknowingly pass as same.)

But in a world that may pull us to build “icons to one pharaoh,” let’s remember that these icons always fade and fall in time. And the “pharaohs” who seem so important today will become specks in the sands of history.

Ancient Egyptians may have built the pyramids to honor their leaders, but today they stand as testament to the strength of thousands of people—not enslaved people, but privileged workers—who together built something that lasted. (See this fascinating article from Harvard Magazine on the construction of the pyramids.)

The culture of goodness, inclusivity, kindness, etc. that President Obama mentioned can live on in our hearts, and in our individual actions. Looking at each other—as Gloria Steinem said in my post yesterday—rather than at the pharaoh, we can maintain what’s important to us.

Language is at the heart of that. So I’ll keep writing; you keep reading.

Stories can heal — a Veterans Day suggestion

Stories, like Swiss Army knives, perform many functions. They can inform or entertain. They can spark action. And, as Sebastian Junger reminds us in his Vanity Fair piece about PTSD, stories can heal.

What traumatizes our men and women returning from battle? Junger suggests it may not be just the things they have seen and done in the war. He cites the abrupt transition from the highly communal life of the military back to our relatively isolated American lifestyle as part of the problem.

Solutions through storytelling

We can mitigate this isolation. And we can do it without a huge shift in our lifestyle; we don’t all need to move to kibbutzim. But we can get some good ideas from how other cultures—with lower levels of PTSD—treat their warriors. Junger writes:

“…we could emulate many tribal societies—including the Apache—by getting rid of parades and replacing them with some form of homecoming ceremony. An almost universal component of these ceremonies is the dramatic retelling of combat experiences to the warrior’s community. We could achieve that on Veterans Day by making every town and city hall in the country available to veterans who want to speak publicly about the war. The vapid phrase ‘I support the troops’ would then mean actually showing up at your town hall every Veterans Day to hear these people out. Some vets will be angry, some will be proud, and some will be crying so hard they can’t speak. But a community ceremony like that would finally return the experience of war to our entire nation, rather than just leaving it to the people who fought.

We’re happy to give Veterans their parades. But parading Vets only get seen, not heard. Some Veterans tell their stories in therapy, but therapy carries a stigma for many people. We need to ritualize the storytelling, nationalize it, publicize it. Make it the rule rather than the exception.

Being truly heard remains one of the most profound experiences a person can have. If we can give this gift to our veterans—and to each other—then, yes, stories can heal.

Storytelling for survival

In the divided U.S. revealed by this week’s election, storytelling becomes more important than ever.

Usually I advocate storytelling as a way to connect with people from different demographics, with different sets of experiences. But that only works when people are willing to hear you.

Since the presidential election—yes, just a few days ago!—the level of violence against women, Muslims, LGBT people and people of color has risen precipitously. As the hatred escalates, and as hate-filled words give way to actions, we have to tell—and amplify—those stories.

The new website Why We’re Afraid does this. It’s a one-stop shop to demonstrate that in electing Trump we also elevated and legitimized his bigotry. If you’ve been touched by the hate, share your story there. If you think your friends and neighbors are exaggerating the peril, spend a little time reading those stories.

So tell stories. Stories about the things you experience, the things your friends and family have experienced. Stories about your values—the values of kindness and compassion we once shared as a nation. Call out bigotry wherever it rears its ugly head. We cannot let this behavior become normalized.

And for more on that subject, check out this piece I wrote on LinkedIn yesterday, An Open Letter to Straight White Christian Male CEOs.


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.


Comedy & authenticity: Laughter connects people

Laughter connects people. Whether you’re on a first date with one person or onstage in front of 1,000, sharing a laugh remains one of the best ways to break the emotional ice.Comedian Jane Condon understands that laughter connects peopl

My very funny friend Jane Condon recently wrote a piece for Women@Forbes about using comedy in business speeches. I agree with just about every word she wrote, including “and” and “the.”

But I want to highlight a couple of points she made.

Jane says, “Know your audience.” I would add, “and the occasion.”

Understanding the purpose and tone of the gathering might have helped Trump avoid getting booed at a high-society dinner. Then again…Trump.

Jane says, “Be you. Always.”

I don’t have anything to add to that, other than an emphatic head nod. But don’t confine authenticity to just the humorous part of your remarks. If your personality doesn’t shine through your words, the audience will sense the disconnect. At best, they’ll leave the speech feeling puzzled by you; at worst, they’ll dislike you, maybe without knowing quite why.

Something like that happened to the actress Anne Hathaway in 2013. She recently revealed that she’d been navigating a deeply unhappy period following her performance in the movie Les Misérables. Yet once she was nominated for—and won—an Academy Award,

“I had to stand up in front of people and feel something I don’t feel, which is uncomplicated happiness,” she says…. “I tried to pretend that I was happy and I got called out on it, big time.”

Somewhere along the way, Hathaway got transformed from, as the Vanity Fair article described it, a “friendly famous face into an actress the public loved to hate.”

I’m not an expert in the vagaries of an Oscar campaign, but I can’t help thinking that authenticity might have served Hathaway better than, well, acting.

Yes, her feelings were complicated, difficult to encapsulate into a sound bite. But imagine if she’d said, “Playing this character reminded me that so many women face these terrible situations, even today. That’s a tough thing to shake, and I haven’t quite done it yet.”

Who couldn’t connect to that?

Okay, back to Jane.

Jane says, “Lastly, be you.”

Yes. Authenticity is so important she mentioned it twice. She says,

Audiences are smarter than we give them credit for. Comedy comes from the true place. And authentic will read to the back of the room. So take risks (yes) but be you. There is only one you.

“There is only one you.” Even if you’re talking about a subject people have heard a million times before, when you come at it from an authentic place, you make it new for your listeners. No one else has your experiences, your perceptions. If laughter connects, then authenticity cements that connection.

Make ’em laugh, yes. But make ’em feel, too. And let them get to know the real you.

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

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 shopping list: Story Safari

I found this fabulous story in Lawrence Wechsler’s Vanity Fair piece about the great writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks encountering a shopping list left by his housekeeper:

“The other day,” Oliver tells me, “on the list was the word ‘fail.’ I figured this was some prodigiously self-deprecatory detergent and set about looking for it. But no stores had it. I decided its name must have been self-fulfilling.

“Only, my housekeeper subsequently corrected me: ‘No, no, you idiot—foil!’ ”

Another great story bagged on a Story Safari. Now, how might I use this?

How to mount this Story Safari trophy?

At the simplest level, it could be a story about how doctors’ famously unreadable handwriting. This doctor was undone by his housekeeper’s handwriting.

But, really, we can do much better than that.

We might use it in a story about someone too ready to see failure.

Or, playing off the fact that most of us fear failure entirely too much, we might write a story about someone with so little fear of failure that he thinks a consumer product company would name a product “Fail.” Can you imagine a company doing such a thing? I certainly can’t.

In any case, stories like this in Wechsler’s article humanize Sacks. The article made me like the man even more than I already did. And that’s one of the primary purposes of using stories like this, especially in a business context.

Learn to tell your story powerfully. Join me for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate: Write Right to Lead”—Saturday October 29th at 12 noon Eastern, 9 a.m. Pacific.

Tell stories! (Oliver Sacks edition)

Do you ever get tired of me proselytizing on behalf of stories? Well, too bad. I am a story evangelist. And I’m not alone.

Catching up on a dusty old issue of Vanity Fair, I found a story by Lawrence Wechsler with notes of his conversations with the late neurologist Oliver Sacks.Oliver Sacks recognized the importance of stories

I’m not a science nerd by any means. But I have been a huge Oliver Sacks fan ever since I read his remarkable book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: and Other Clinical Tales. Many more people know him from his book Awakenings, later turned into a movie starring Robin Williams as a Sacks-like character.

Sacks took his material from real life, from the rich stories he was privy to as he treated patients with a range of puzzling neurological ailments. And the key word in that sentence? Stories.

Stories resonate—and get remembered

Other doctors might have treated the same people and seen them as mere cases. But Sacks recognized them as people—with stories to tell. Stories particular to each patient’s own condition, but with elements that could resonate with all of us.

Here’s what Wechsler writes about one of his conversations with Sacks:

“He respects facts, he tells me, and he has a scientist’s passion for precision. But facts, he insists, must be embedded in stories. Stories—people’s stories—are what really have him hooked…”

As you might guess, I added the emphasis there. Tell facts, by all means. But tell them in a context that will make them memorable.

And recognize that facts by themselves only go so far:

“He recently attended a conference on Tourette’s syndrome. Ninety-two specialists gave papers on EKG readings, electrical conductivity of the brain—all kinds of technical subjects. Sacks, the 93rd, got up and said, ‘It’s strange. I’ve been sitting here all weekend and heard not one sentence on what it might be like to be a Touretter.'”

I can practically see the eminent neurologists in the audience shrinking in their chairs: How could we lose sight of the patients?

Whether you’re conducting scientific research, or turning around companies, or selling vacuums, your work doesn’t exist in (you should pardon the expression) a vacuum. Everything we do touches our fellow human beings in some way, large or small. And that produces stories. And stories connect us to one another.

Tell stories. Every time.

Learn to tell your story more effectively. Join me for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate: Write Right to Lead”—Saturday October 29th at 12 noon Eastern, 9 a.m. Pacific.