“Invest in yourself.”

When the young man asked the famous investor the best way to increase his net worth, I imagine he expected to hear something about identifying undervalued assets and holding onto them until the tide turned.

But that’s not what Warren Buffett said. According to a recent article in Business Insider, Warren told the young man, “Invest in yourself.”

“The one easy way to become worth 50 percent more than you are now at least is to hone your communication skills—both written and verbal.”

—Warren Buffett
investor Warren Buffett standing next to Elaine Bennett
Yes, that’s me next to Warren Buffett

He’s right—I’ve increased my own net worth far more than 50% since I focused full-time on writing. (How many full-time writers can say that?) That was more than 25 years ago—back when I was lucky enough to work directly with Warren, who told me “You have a terrific ear and you turn straight thinking into straight writing.”

So many of us think the road to success is paved with hard work. Yes, but that’s not all—you also have to be willing to grow. Warren didn’t make his fortune by shouting “Buy! Sell!” into a telephone all day like some cartoon fat-cat. He does the inner work, too—what some might think of as “soft skills.” He analyzes and thinks, he doesn’t just react. I cannot tell you (I literally cannot tell you; I believe in confidentality) the brilliant, counter-intuitive ideas he came up with for positioning (not “spinning”) the business to showcase unexpected truths. You need to be both authentic and comfortable with creativity to come up with stuff like that.

And everyone knows Warren has cornered the market on folksy metaphors. It’s a way of showcasing his personality, but those metaphors also get his ideas past the intellectual barriers of our brains and into our hearts, where they stick. And what good is an idea if no one remembers it? Warren is a true communicator because he’s worked at it, and he’s worked at it because he values it. Do you?

If it’s time to invest in yourself, if you’re ready to find your own unique communication style, shoot me a note and let’s talk.

Changing perspectives — data with a human face

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “Data”? Unless you’re a science fiction fan, chances are you’re thinking “numbers.” One of our jobs as writers is changing perspectives on data—helping people to grasp what those numbers mean. What they reflect about the world, about us.

Changing perspectives
Sallie Krawcheck knows how to tell a story with data. Photo by Grace Villamil, CC BY 2.0

Sallie Krawcheck does this about as well as anyone I’ve encountered—including master storyteller and genius investor Warren Buffett. But that doesn’t surprise me. Krawcheck started out as a financial analyst. And successful analysts know how to turn numbers into memorable prose, raw data into recommendations people will follow.

Today, as CEO of the global professional women’s network Ellevate, she’s set her sights on changing perspectives—women’s perspectives about their relationship to money; the business world’s perspectives about its relationship to women. Judging from her book Own It: The Power of Women at Work, she’s doing a damn fine job of that, too.

Changing perspectives — name your data points

Let’s take the subject of how few women hold seats on corporate boards of directors. Depending on how you slice the pie, it’s 15%, 14%...I haven’t seen any number larger than 20%.

Now there are lots of ways to talk about 20%—one in five, two out of ten. Admit it: your eyes are already starting to glaze over. And you care about this stuff. Imagine trying to sell it to someone who doesn’t see how it affects him.

So what does Sallie Krawcheck do? Instead of reeling off numbers, she names her data points:

“There are literally more men named John, Robert, William, or James on corporate boards than there are women.”

Is that brilliant positioning or is that brilliant positioning?

Okay, it doesn’t tell you the actual data—she leaves that for the footnote. But giving human form to the numbers turns the data from an abstraction into something people can easily relate to.

Changing perspectives—getting people to look at a familiar subject in a new way—helps people develop empathy, and empathy creates change. We need a whole lot more empathy in the world. Telling stories instead of reciting data seems a great place to start.

Shape your stories to make them memorable—discover how in my hands-on revision workshop. Click here and I’ll let you know when we launch.

Networking: A tale of two titans

My story about the revolutionary truth about networking begins:

It was the worst of times; it was the best of times.

Yes, I know that’s not the order Charles Dickens used. But I met my first Titan under circumstances so stressful that when I happened upon a news story about the event several years later, I actually had a bout of PTSD. In terms of my business life, it was definitely the worst of times.

Back then, I didn’t have time to worry about the Titan’s reputation or fame. I was just head-down at my desk, doing the best work I could in an impossible situation. Fortunately, that “best” impressed him.

If we’d met under any other circumstances—at a cocktail party or (shudder) a networking event—I might have been just another fangirl, searching frantically for something intelligent to say. But in these circumstances, he met my work first. And that said the intelligent things for me.

Buffett Photo

When I picked up the office phone the next morning, I heard:

“Hello, Elaine? This is Warren Buffett. Did you write this thing?”

I had. He liked it. Over the six months we worked together, “the worst of times” turned pretty darn good.

Networking like a fangirl

I met the second Titan in much more relaxed circumstances: A friend and I bought tickets for a Broadway show featuring an actor we both adore. [Let me pause for a moment to define “adore.” In my case, it means that when this man sings, I sometimes forget I play for the other team—until my friend reminds me. She’s on his team, and somehow believes that gives her “dibs.” Though the actor’s wife might disagree.]

A colleague who wanted to do my friend a favor asked if she’d like to meet the actor after the show. I guilted her into taking me along. I mean, what are friends for?

We waited at the restaurant next door to the theater. I took a deep breath as I watched him dart past the front window and slip inside. The best of times, indeed.

He greeted my friend first and then turned to me. I consider it one of the signal accomplishments of my life thusfar that when he took my hand and said my name, I didn’t faint on the spot.

Perhaps a better accomplishment would have been to actually talk to him. But every ounce of common sense flew out of my head the moment he turned his eyes on me. I sat at the table in a daze, unable to ask a single question. My friend carried the conversation, suddenly the most charming I’ve ever seen her.

Now, it’s not like I had nothing to say to the man: we even have a (different) friend in common! We could have had a lot to talk about. But I was star-struck and dumbstruck. Easily the worst two “strucks” you can combine.

I connected well with Mr. Buffett because our conversation began on solid ground: we were talking about work, at which we both excel. But with the Actor—well, I acted like a fangirl because I was a fangirl. I completely forgot about the many very interesting other facets of my personality.

The revolutionary truth about networking—and thank you, Dorie Clark, for reminding me of this—is that it’s nothing more than having conversations with people you want to talk to anyway. Whether they’re one of the richest men in America, a man with one of the richest voices on Broadway, or the John or Jane Doe sitting next to you at a dinner party, we’re all just people. With a vast range of interests. It’s just about finding a way to connect…and then connecting.

Discover how to communicate courageously (except perhaps when meeting your favorite actor) and use your story to connect with and move your listeners. Register for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate”—Wednesday November 30th at 8pm Eastern, 5pm Pacific.

Name-Dropping: Not just pointless—annoying, too

Name-dropping is a fantastic way to make sure people stop listening to you. But—wait—that’s not what you want? Oh. Well. Then stop dropping names.

Even if you’re not dropping a whole list of, say, client names—and we talked about avoiding lists just the other day—even dropping one name without substantive context in turns people off.

I wish I knew someone who could explain this to you. Let’s ask my friend Jack Dorsey, founder of both Twitter and Square. No, I do not actually know Jack Dorsey. But I do know how to search the internet. And a Google search of “name-dropping annoying” took me to this email he sent to his employees at Square. Apparently they were too young and too enthusiastic to realize how pointless the habit is. So he spelled it out for them:

“Using someone else’s name to sell an idea does two things:

  1. It diminishes your authority.
  2. It diminishes the idea’s merit.”

Dorsey sums up everything I have to say about name-dropping in this one lovely sentence:

“Authority derives naturally from merit, not the other way around.”

That deserves repeating: Authority derives naturally from merit.

In other words…

It’s not just about who, it’s about what and why

While you may feel super-special to have worked with 487 of the Fortune 500 companies, listing them does not show us why you deserved to get that work. What did you do? What problems did you identify and/or solve? How did the client feel about your work?

Now, please don’t answer those questions 487 times—that’s as bad a list. Maybe even worse, because it’s longer. Look for ways to categorize the names you want to drop:

“I’ve written for a number of leading business executives, including Warren Buffett.”

And then I might write a bit about the work I did with him. Certainly Mr. Buffett is not the only “leading business executive” I’ve worked with. But he is the one that arouses the most curiosity when I talk with prospective clients. Boil down the list to the most interesting elements—and if you must cite more than one, force yourself to stop at three.

Or you might group clients by industry or product:

“I’ve written for companies that make everything from consumer products to steak dinners. And some that have made waves. The New York Times praised the honesty of the annual report I wrote for Bankers Trust in the aftermath of its derivatives scandal.”

As in the Buffett example, I’ve named one company. It’s perfect if I were pitching to a financial services-oriented client. If I were pitching a nonprofit, I’d swap out the last two sentences for something that would better resonate with them.

And that’s the key. Whether you’re writing an article or a speech, you want the things you say to resonate with your audience. If you want to reach an audience wider than your mother, or that hottie you’re trying to pick up in a bar, that list won’t do the trick.

Give us context, and we’ll give you our attention.

Ink by the barrel: plagiarism and the press

Nothing has been able to derail the traveling circus that is Trump’s presidential campaign. Violence at his rallies? The story seems to blow over in a day. Threats to fire any members of the judiciary who disagree with him? [Crickets.]

But the story of Melania Trump’s plagiarized convention speech—that has legs. If there’s one topic members of the media feel passionately about, it’s plagiarizing. So you can threaten to deport people until the proverbial cows come home, but steal another writer’s work and you’re asking for trouble.

It reminds me of an expression I learned from Warren Buffett—though someone else may have said it first—”Never pick a fight with somebody who buys ink by the barrel.” (Note how I both sourced the quotation and allowed for the possibility that the source I cite may be incorrect. That’s how it’s done, folks.)

This is far from the Trump campaign’s worst gaffe, but it does expose many of the campaign’s weaknesses. I can’t imagine a major speaker at a political convention—heck, even at a big corporate event—who’d be allowed onstage without having several people vet the speech for consistency of message, at least. They haven’t let Melania say more than a few sentences at other events—yet they let her take the podium at the Convention with no oversight, no rehearsal? Nobody outside the family heard that speech before she gave it? With any other candidate I would say that’s hard to believe. But Trump’s campaign has been literally unbelievable, so who knows?

Today they trotted out a sacrificial lamb named McIver. But—whoops—now they’re not just in trouble with the press; they’ve run afoul of the Federal Elections Commission for using a corporate staffer rather than a campaign staffer to write the speech. The New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza wraps up the growing mess here.

So if McIver wrote the speech, Trump is guilty of allowing his company to make illegal campaign contributions; if Melania wrote the speech she’s guilty of plagiarism. Either way, the Trump campaign seems in desperate need of adult supervision. See Josh Bernoff’s wonderful explanation: he says it’s a classic case of Hanlon’s Razor – a phenomenon I’d never heard of:

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

I’ll let “Melania” have the last word, via Stephen Colbert.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to return to my vacation. Please—no more writing-related news from Cleveland.