Challenged

So here we are, the last day of the Your Turn Challenge. What have I learned?

I can in fact blog for seven days in a row if I choose to. No surprise there, actually.

The surprise happened back on day 4 when I articulated the difference between shipping for my clients (no problem, do it all the time) and shipping for myself.

I learned I have to treat myself like a client. That my work has to be as important to me as my clients’ work is.

I also learned – because I really did write and ship these blog posts every day – that I can work on a weekend (as now) or a holiday (Monday, the first day of the challenge) and emerge none the worse for wear.

I’ve been working from home for a couple of decades now, and I’ve never really drawn a sharp distinction between “work time” and “downtime.” I couldn’t; my office was practically in the middle of the house – with no doors to shut. And I was always ready to work whenever a client called, even when the rest of the world took a holiday. But a couple of years ago, I moved – and the office in my new space had a door. I learned to shut it on Friday evening and keep it closed until Monday morning. Okay, I could check email on my iPad. But I didn’t sit down in my work space. I finally I had time, I told myself, to rejuvenate, to “sharpen my saw” as the Franklin Covey people say. And I became very reluctant to work on the weekend (unless the work absolutely demanded it).

Now, I could have banked my blogs for this challenge, scheduled them to hit on the appointed days. But I wanted to find out what it would be like to write on my days off. I’ll admit, I was a little grumpy about it on Monday. But even though I’m away from home this weekend, I managed both to ship and to enjoy myself. Imagine that!

I’ll be shipping more often from now on, so please check back from time to time. And if I manage to say anything that strikes a chord for you, hit the comments button and say hi.

Zora & Me

I hadn’t read a ton of Zora Neale Hurston – just the magnificent novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. (Haven’t read it? Do it now.) And at some point in the foggy past I might have read her not entirely accurate autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road.

Anyway, I hadn’t read a ton of Hurston’s work, but when I got the assignment to write a speech to be delivered at a college in Florida, she was the first thing I thought of. Maybe because the speaker was an African American man. Maybe because I often try to give male speakers women to quote (if the quotes are on point). I’d even once been audacious enough to hook a speech for a financial industry exec on a quotation by pioneering French feminist and existentialist Simone de Beauvoir. Back then, the financial industry was even more macho than it is today, but the quotation was absolutely on point – and the executive’s wife had an important job herself, so I figured he’d be cool with it.

But I digress: As surprising as that experience was (today the Your Turn Challenge wants to hear how I have surprised myself), it pales in comparison to the Zora Neale Hurston Incident. So back to our story:

I had a little lead time before writing this speech, so I went to the bookstore and bought Of Mules and Men, Hurston’s compilation of African American folktales from the south. Interesting, but it didn’t provide the hook I was looking for.

I pounded out a couple of drafts, but I still hadn’t found the right hook. Then something stopped me cold. This college was in Florida. Wait – didn’t Hurston have some association with Florida? This was back in the days before Wikipedia, so I had to invest some effort in researching my hunch. She was born in Florida. But that wasn’t it. Yes! She also taught in Florida. At a college. The same college my exec was speaking at. After that, the speech practically wrote itself.

This was the first time in my career I’d ever experienced something like that – an idea welling up from my subconscious that turned out to be exactly the right idea, even though I didn’t recognize it initially. It’s the same sort of thing I wrote about yesterday. Each time it happens I’m amazed. But it’s true what they say: You never forget your first time.

“A problem like Maria”

I hate writing promo copy about the speeches I write – especially when they want the blurb three months before I’ve even started writing the speech. But there I was: My guy was speaking at a conference and the conference wanted to advertise it.

So I was hunkered down at my desk with promo copy due that very day. Fingers hovering over the keyboard. Staring at a blank screen. And this song starts playing in my head: “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” You know – the song the nuns sing in The Sound of Music. (Other people might hear Beyoncé; I’m a musical theatre geek.)
I shook my head, trying to swat the song away. Fingers over keyboard. Deep breath. “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”
“Shut up,” I told my brain. “I’m trying to get an idea.”
“How do you solve a problem like Maria?”
And then I realized: The song wasn’t a distraction. It was my speech.
How do I get unstuck? (That’s what the #YourTurnChallenge folks want to know today.) Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting out of my own way.
Oh, and the speech? It won an award.
You can read the opening here. If you’d like to see the full text, shoot me an email – elaine (at) BennettInk.com

Ship Happens

Today the #YourTurnChallenge asks me to think about something I do well…and then teach my readers how to do it.

One thing I do well is, in Godin-speak, Ship.

Well, yes and no. Yes, I am a first-rate shipper when it comes to others: In decades of writing for clients, I have never missed a deadline.

But when it comes to my own work…not so much. I could pretend otherwise, but a quick look at the dates of previous blog posts would give me away very quickly.

Even though it’s something I do well only sometimes, I’m going to write about shipping. Perhaps the excellent shipper-for-clients can teach something to the inconsistent shipper-for-myself. And you’re welcome to read along, too.

I feel a sense of responsibility to my clients.

My clients have deadlines – If they’ve accepted an invitation to give a speech on a specific date and time, I need to ship that speech at least a week earlier.

My clients have goals – they trust that I will send them to the podium with something compelling and memorable to say.

Well, it doesn’t take a genius to see where this is going. I unfailingly meet my clients’ deadlines, yet I rarely set deadlines for myself. I deliver on my clients’ goals; I rarely articulate my own. I feel a sense of responsibility to my clients because they are paying the bills. But my own work – like blogging, to build a wider pool of potential clients – that waits until I have “something to say.”

I’m only halfway through this weeklong blogging challenge (let’s hear it for Day 4!) and it’s clear to me that if I need to write, I will find something to say. “Need,” for me (I’m learning) requires a commitment. And while I’m great at making and keeping commitments to my clients, I have a pretty woeful track record of doing so for myself. Yes, “Ship” happens. But only when I make it happen.

So here’s a commitment: I will blog at least twice a week. And finally get my monthly newsletter going. Sign up for it in the box to the left.

Ship, ship, hooray!

Chambers for Improvement

Today’s prompt for the #YourTurnChallenge is “Tell us about something that you think should be improved.”

That’s an easy one to answer after last night’s State of the Union Address. The usual phrase is “room for improvement.” But after hearing the constant stream of disrespect in the House Chamber as the president spoke last night, I have to say we have “Chambers for improvement” (no, I’m not exempting the Senators).

Whether or not one agrees with President Obama, he is the elected leader of our country. Twice elected, as he reminded those who applauded his comment that he has no more campaigns to run. And while the president’s zinger may have been more appropriate to a campaign rally than a State occasion, the derisive applause that prompted it was boorish and completely unbecoming.

How can we expect Congress to engage in the productive debate required to solve the challenges facing this country when they can’t even give Mr. Obama forty-five minutes of polite attention?

Lack of audience civility aside, for me it was the best-written State of the Union Address that President Obama has delivered. Less a laundry list of programs and more a narrative about the values we share (or, depending on your politics, the values he wishes we would share). Congratulations to the White House speechwriting team.

Listen!

You need to present your credentials to a potential client. But if they’re in the room with you, it’s safe to assume they already know something about your strengths. So what’s the most important thing to say?

I once sat through a meeting that the leader of the pitching team started by presenting his and his firm’s credentials…for two hours. Literally. (And yes, I literally mean “literally.”) No one could derail the runaway train of his mouth – believe me, I tried. The only thing that stopped the monologue was an assistant popping in to see if we wanted to order lunch. Oh boy, did we ever!

In two hours of talking, he never managed to say the six little words that should start any first meeting with a potential client:

What can we do for you?

Say the six magic works and then close your mouth and open your ears. Because how can you serve your clients if you don’t know what they want?

Many people talk about listening, but few people actually do it. I think that’s because it requires a certain level of courage: What if what they want isn’t what I want to do? What if it’s beyond my expertise? What if I fail? It’s a lot easier not to fail if you never articulate a goal.

Listening isn’t the only way to win clients – I just think it’s the best way. It shows you respect them and their business. It’s a great way to build a relationship.

And what about that guy who delivered the two-hour monologue? Believe it or not, the clients actually hired his firm. But they never listened to a word he said.

My turn (and yours)

Maybe a decade ago, my then-partner opened a package at work and found a book. Someone had sent it to her because she wrote about small businesses, and this was a book of advice for businesspeople. Well, for people. And for businesses. But not, she thought, for her audience.

She called me: “I got this book about business. You’re a business writer, maybe you’d like to read it.”

“Who wrote it?”

“Some guy named Seth Godin.” He edited it, she said, from contributions by a long list of people. She reeled off the names, the A-list of business writers: Dan Pink, the speechwriter who branded freelancing as a profession. Malcolm Gladwell, the brilliant social analyst whose work I first found in The New Yorker. And then, amid the who’s who of business literati, one name leapt out. Not a business expert – as far as I knew – but someone I’d definitely heard of: My ex. Well, “ex” may be putting it a little too strongly. Someone I had dated after college and since lost track of.

And that’s why I read The Big Moo. Not because of the subject, not because of the famous co-authors but because of this trailmix-munching creature I met at an old friend’s party in the latter part of the 20th century.

They say you get something valuable out of every relationship. It took a few decades but that post-collegiate fling led me to Seth Godin, and I am very glad for it. I recommend his work constantly, especially to people who believe that “sophisticated” has to mean “complicated,” that “smart” and “readable” cannot coexist.

Seth’s most recent book, What to Do When It’s Your Turn (and It’s Always Your Turn), has some powerful things to say about fear and change and action. “Action,” for a writer, means writing – something I have done only spottily on this blog, something I have determined to do more of in 2015.

And that brings me to Monday, Day 1 of a challenge to “ship every day” – blog every day for a week. Winnie Kao, the Godin-phile who created it, calls it the Your Turn Challenge. Join me. I expect to learn something about myself. Maybe you can too.