Thursday, December 9, 2010

"We'll call you within two days"

My furnace died yesterday morning.  I called some local heating guys and I called our electric & gas utility, too, because someone suggested it to my partner.

The locals were at my house almost before I hung up the phone.  The utility said, after I got through the computer responses and managed to talk with a human being, "We'll have someone call you within two days."

I guess the concept of "dead furnace" means something different to a guy sitting in a phone bank with some headphones wrapped around his head than it does to the person sitting a freezing house.  The small businesspeople know that. The big business doesn't care.

For the record, the utility called in less than 36 hours...While my new furnace was being installed.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"I played an important role, but not the determinant role"

As counselor to John F. Kennedy, Jr., Ted Sorensen was present at the creation of some of the most stirring oratory produced in my lifetime.  And that's about all he would ever admit to.  The first fact makes him one of the best speechwriters in modern times; the second makes him one of the classiest as well.  A life well worth emulating.  I'm grateful to have met him and heard him speak.

Be sure to watch the "Last Words" video feature embedded in the Times' obituary.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Sorensen.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Public Speaking

A lovely walking path follows the curves of the harbor across the street from San Diego's convention center.  The path offers something for just about everyone: art (an arresting silver sculpture), nature (a small dog park with the prettiest dog-level drinking fountain I've ever seen), a reflecting pool (surrounding yet more art).  But the most interesting feature to me were the square granite plaques spaced every few feet along the path, with quotations engraved on them.

Now, San Diego is not the only city to do this: The public spaces in Manhattan's Battery Park City feature passages by Walt Whitman and Frank O'Hara, celebrating what one web site calls "the exhilarating spirit of New York City."   But those passages are actually about New York City.  The quotations in San Diego's park were not created for or about San Diego; the man who wrote the words never lived there.

From the written word to the art inspired by it, the entire park - its official name is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Promenade - celebrates the spirit and the vision of this great leader.  And the fact that San Diego has placed this tribute in such a prominent location, across the street from its Convention Center, where tens of thousands of tourists encounter it every day, gives even casual visitors a real sense of the culture and priorities of this beautiful city.

I can't wait to go back.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Q: When is a blockbuster not a blockbuster?
A: When you can't tell anyone about it.

I walked into a meeting recently and the client greeted me with, "We've just been singing your praises!" (Well, don't stop on my account.)  It seems a series of profiles I'd written was generating spectacular page-views on their intranet.  One in particular had done "blockbuster" numbers - 12 times their average readership.

It's the kind of result you want to stand on the rooftops and crow about - or at least put in a marketing email to current and prospective clients. Writing that gets results is rare.  Not to mention valuable.

But I can't.  Sensitive subject, confidential, etc., etc.  This client doesn't have a problem with my telling people I wrote the pieces...I just can't say what they're about. 

Same sort of thing happened a long time ago with a speech of mine printed in Vital Speeches of the Day.  It was my first Vital speech, and that's quite a milestone for a speechwriter.  The client was pretty happy about it, too.  Naturally, I asked if I could use it in my marketing and you could have knocked me over with a feather when she said no.  Said she didn't want anyone to know that she hadn't written the speech herself. And yes, of course, that's her choice to make.  But I went on to write even more awesome speeches for the woman, and it kills me that I can't show them to anyone else.

Occupational hazard, I guess.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Talk to Me

I don't know about you, but I get very grumpy when I feel a speaker hasn't tailored remarks to me.

I don't mean me personally, but whatever audience I'm in.  When you're speaking to the teachers' association, you don't talk about saving the financial services industry.  You talk about education.

And when you're speaking to a more heterogenous group - where some people care about education and others about financial services - you find something unique to say to them.  Think about what brings these people together to hear you and acknowledge that they are different than the people you spoke to yesterday or this morning or the group you'll address tomorrow.

Some politicians do this well.  Bill Clinton was (still is) a master at this.  The first George Bush, not so much.  Remember the campaign stop where he read his notes to the audience? "Message: I care."  Implication: He clearly didn't.

You want to give a successful speech?  Think about what you're saying.  And talk to me.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

On a mission

"Don't you have a mission statement?"

Well, no, I didn't.  But I do now - and a "vision statement," too.  Whaddaya think?

Making the world a clearer place, one sentence at a time. That's been the vision of Bennett Ink, LLC, since its founding in 1993. 

Elaine Bennett specializes in meaningful, concise business communications: writing speeches, by-lined articles, and award-winning annual reports for Fortune 50 businesses.  She also spreads the gospel of good writing, teaching professionals from entry-level to executive how to craft clearer, more effective prose.

Monday, July 12, 2010

"Bank of Evil"?

The New York Times tells us that Wall Street is hiring again.  But don't break out the party hats and $2,000 bottles of Champagne just yet.  Wall Street has a reputation problem: Most firms will ignore it, but the smart firms will acknowledge and address it.

Yes I know, I know - Wall Street has a reputation problem every five or six years.  This is probably the third such cycle I've lived through since I started working in financial services in the late '80s.  Back then, the punchline was a survey on trustworthiness.  The good news, Wall Streeters were not the least trusted group in the nation; the bad news, they placed lower than the KKK.

How far has anti-Wall Street sentiment penetrated the public discourse in the current cycle?  I had occasion to sit through the animated feature Despicable Me this weekend (save yourselves - don't do it) during which the evil genius, seeking to finance his dastardly plan, visits the bank to secure a loan.  Not surprisingly, the sign over the door read:

"Bank of Evil"  

More surprising was the all-too-legible subhead:

"Formerly Known As Lehman Brothers"

Does it really matter what the movie-going public thinks?  Unlike consumer products companies, Wall Street firms believe they don't need to curry favor widely.  After all, their business model doesn't depend on millions of people buying a few dollars' worth of products; it depends on a few people (investment managers) buying millions of dollars' worth of products.

But there's another constituency eyeing Wall Street: the government.  Elected officials - and the regulatory agencies they control - are extremely sensitive to popular sentiment.  As the country gears up for the political fisticuffs of a midterm election, you can expect to see financial services executives on the hot seat.

The best way to handle this onslaught of negative publicity?  Don't fight it, roll with it.  If there was wrongdoing - or perceived wrongdoing - admit it.  That's what I advised Bankers Trust CEO Charlie Sanford to do when some of his derivatives traders were in the spotlight, and The New York Times approved.  Then find something positive your firm does and talk it up.

Making money isn't intrinsically evil. Without financial services firms, the world's economy would grind to a screeching halt.  Someone needs to tell this story, honestly and compellingly.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Fear, Fun & "Foam Man"

An interesting confluence of events has me thinking about the nexus between fear and success.  I'm reading Seth Godin's remarkable book Linchpin, in which he discusses, among other things, the biological manifestations of fear that can keep us from achieving success.  And then there's my friend the 50-something woman who has decided to teach herself to do this.  No, that's not her in the freeline skating video - it's some crazy teenage boy.  Or perhaps you'll see him as a young man with great coordination and little fear of grave bodily harm.  And that's the point.

My skating friend injured herself yesterday, but apparently that has not dimmed her enthusiasm for the sport.  She's clearly having too much fun to waste time being afraid. 

And that reminded me of "Foam Man," whose story I read years ago in a piece in The New Yorker by Jane & Michael Stern.  I whisked the story into my quotation file because I just knew it would come in handy for a speech someday. It took nearly 15 years, but I finally found it the perfect home, with an executive welcoming a bunch of college students to a workshop during which they would be evaluated as potential recruits:

As I was thinking about what to say to you tonight, I remembered an article I read a few years ago in The New Yorker. It was an article about a group of people who signed up for an experience that promised to be exciting, if a little bit intimidating, but which, when it was over, would leave them with a huge sense of accomplishment. I imagine there might be some people in this room who identify with these emotions.

The experience the people in this article had signed up for was bull-riding school. These were not professional cowboys – they weren’t even people aspiring to become professional cowboys. They were just a group of men and women who, for various reasons, wanted the experience of sitting on top of a two-ton bull and staying there for at least eight seconds as the bull did everything it could to shake them off. It should be noted that the students were there voluntarily; the bulls were not.

The part of the article that stuck with me was a story about one student. This guy had shopped for his bull-riding wardrobe very carefully. He had purchased the regulation cowboy shirt and jeans – but he bought them eight sizes too big. And then he stuffed all of the extra space in his shirt and pants with yards of foam rubber. The people who wrote the article said he looked like the Michelin Man. But he didn’t care. He knew he was likely to be bucked off the bull, and he wanted to make sure he’d be safe.

So what happened? I’ll quote directly from the article: “After Foam Man was bucked off his first bull he bounced like a Super Ball, then came down right on top of his unprotected head.” The writers added, “Foam Man didn’t return.”

It’s a great story. But you have to wonder why Foam Man was there in the first place. He knew staying on that bull would be challenging – and he knew he was likely to fail before he succeeded. Why sign up for an experience and then try to insulate yourself – in the case of Foam Man, quite literally – from what the experience provides?

You'd never catch me looking like Foam Man, mostly because you'd never catch me signing up for bull-riding school in the first place. But I suspect I create a cushy foam lining around many other experiences - a lining that keeps me from engaging myself fully. It may keep me from getting bruised, but perhaps it also keeps me from giving my all, flat out - and from getting the most out of everything I do.

So I wonder...what could we all accomplish if we packed away the foam, faced the fear, and accepted the fun?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Power of a Story

Just finished reading two memoirs - Piper Kerman's account of a year in the grip of the federal prison system, Orange is the New Black, and Tori Murden McClure's story of her two stints in solitary, as she attempted to become the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

Contrary to what you might expect, the rower survived more dangerous encounters than the inmate, but both women endured more deprivation than most of us will ever be capable of. (Today, for example, I abandoned my office and hightailed it to the air-conditioned public library just because the temperature climbed above 90 degrees.)

Ultimately I found the "woman-against-the-elements" narrative more compelling than the "woman-loses-all-power-but-still-survives" story - but the key to both books is that the writer grew as a result of her experiences, and not in the perfunctory "I'm a better person now than I was then" manner that seems de rigeur for memoirists.

And that, I think, is the key to the power of a good story.  Whether it's something that has actually happened to you or a story with a good moral that you've plucked from history or literature, it has to have some real, tangible impact on you - the speaker - if it's going to have an impact on your audience.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

When is a deadline not a deadline?

I understand deadlines - I've been working with them for over 20 years.  And I'm proud to say that I have never in my professional career missed a deadline.  Not once.

But apparently not everyone feels the same way.  Case in point, the gentleman I just spoke with from the customer service department of a major financial services company.

I happened to be checking my bill online this morning when I noticed that the due date had been moved forward by two weeks - in this instance, from early July to late June. Problem is, for as long as I've been doing business with this company I have budgeted to pay the bill early in the month.  So I called customer service:

"Oh," the rep said, cheerfully. "You don't have to worry about that.  I know it says 'due by June 28th' on the bill, but it's not actually due until mid-July."

Then why doesn't it say mid-July?

Apparently, this company treats its customers like college students who require an automatic extension on the term paper.  I mean, if they don't think I'm responsible enough to understand a deadline, then why are they doing business with me in the first place?

For me, good customer service is honest and transparent.  Say what you need and I'll deliver on it.  I really can't imagine doing business any other way.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Culture and Communication

Therapist and pop-culture phenomenon John Gray has built quite a career (and bank account) by insisting that "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus." In Gray's bipolar cosmos, communication issues are inextricably bound up with anatomy, or biology, or hormones, or something. (I have to admit I've only read more than a few pages of one of his books, but I have heard him lecture and despite the fact that he seems like a personable and well-meaning man, I always come away feeling sort of alien. I don't fit into his paradigm, perhaps because I'm not from Venus; I'm from New Jersey.)

Anyway, what I think Gray is getting at is emotional intelligence. And I do agree with him that different people hear and react to things in different ways. But many factors influence this, beyond (or perhaps in addition to) hormones.  Culture, for one, is a major component of social awareness and relationship management. Take someone who is completely in synch with the dominant forms of behavior in his or her native country and plop them in a culture with different expectations and his or her EQ can drop like a stone.

I recently interviewed an executive, an Indian gentleman who grew up and has spent his whole career in India.  At the end of our conversation, I asked him the same closing question I use in every interview: "Is there anything I haven't asked you that I should have?" 

When I'm talking with Americans, that open-ended query often yields the most interesting answers about things I never would have thought to ask.  But this Indian executive read the question differently. "Oh," he stammered, "I would never presume to tell you what you should do. You know the information you need much better than I do."

In that instant I felt like "Speechwriter from Mars."  Perhaps I should have thought about potential cultural differences between us before I opened my mouth, but at least I was able to hear and recognize them once he responded.  I reassured him that if he answered, I would not feel criticized - that, in fact, he may have some knowledge to share that I know nothing about, so his answer could be a great help to me. 

Now he's an intelligent man, with advanced degrees from India's finest universities, but plop him in an American classroom and he's not going to get much out of the experience...unless the teacher identifies and addresses how his expectations may differ from those of his classmates.  

Or unless he gives some thought to cultural differences himself.  Communication, after all, is a two-way street.  But I do think in that situation it's more the responsibility of the person native to the culture to lead or guide, just as you would make sure a houseguest visiting for the first time knows where in your house you keep the towels.

Have any of you had experiences where your emotional intelligence seemed to desert you, or where it was seriously out of whack with the people you were dealing with? How did you handle it?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Any Questions?

I have always believed that I am terrible at asking questions.  Yet I've had many people tell me that I'm great at it - that I ask interesting, thorough questions; even that it was the best interview they've ever had.

So where's the disconnect?

I think - and I realized this in class today - that it's all about my goal. When I'm working, I gather information with a very specific purpose in mind, whether I'm writing a speech or a profile or an essay. It's a purpose outside myself and that somehow makes asking questions "okay" for me.

Outside a professional setting - when I'm meeting someone socially, for instance - I generally don't have such a clear purpose, so I'll come away from the meeting lacking key bits of information that seem obvious to others. "Where did she grow up?" I don't know. "Where does he work?" Sorry, forgot to ask. Actually, I've gotten better at this over time but it's still a very mechanical process for me - almost a checklist I go through in my mind.

I had assumed that my (self-perceived) question-asking deficit was going to be an issue for me as I learned to be a trainer.  I mean, sooner or later you have to stop lecturing and ask a question.  How would I know what to ask, and when?

So I approached the Constructivist theory of education with extreme caution: drawing the knowledge out of one's students cannot be accomplished via a lecture, after all. Questioning - by all participants - is integral to the process.

And yet, when we did a brief teaching exercise in class today, I heard my voice advocating that my group teach in a Constructivist style. And as if that weren't strange enough, I actually formulated some of the key questions we would ask. Wouldn't ya know, it was fun.  Not only that, but the class seemed engaged (even in the very banal task we were assigned to teach).

That's why I grabbed a Constructivist for my final presentation. No doubt in my mind that this is a theory I need to learn more about.  If I can find the joy in asking questions and watching my class create the answers...well, that will be positively Transformational for me.

What theories of education are you drawn to? And why?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Quiet, Please!

So the last time I was in school, I learned things - many of which turned out to be useful - and I thought thoughts - some of which turned out to be intelligent. 

I'm doing both of those now, too, but what's interesting to me is that the times I'm learning the most - the times when I swear I can actually hear my mind expand and feel the rush of air and light through the newly opened space - are the times we pause for reflection.

The "Moment of Silence" turns out to be a teaching tool, one way of breaking up a long lecture into 15-minute chunks to keep the students involved.  I understand this principle: When someone expects one of my clients to fill an hour at a conference I tell them they're going to get a 20-minute speech followed by as much Q&A as the room wants. No way I'd let someone talk for any longer than that!

Once, early in my career, I had to write a two-hour speech for a famously grumpy executive to deliver in Japan.  We questioned, we even protested, but the organizers insisted it was a cultural thing: the Japanese audience would be highly offended if he spoke for even a minute less.  Two hours of simultaneous translation later, my famously grumpy executive and his unfailingly polite audience were all sick of the sound of his voice.  I've had a 15- or 20-minute limit ever since, and nobody's culture seems offended by it.  (My personal culture is most offended by speakers who talk too long.  But I digress.)

So the Moment of Silence.  It serves a mechanical purpose in the classroom.  And at yesterday's class it also helped me, somewhat miraculously, synthesize what I'm learning with why I'm learning it.  It allowed me to remind myself of my strengths, which I don't often do.

Now, I'm used to doing a lot of stuff that doesn't directly look like work.  I believe it's important for my creative process, and often I'm right.  When I need an idea, I'll do some background reading on the subject I'm tackling and then go do something else, like take a walk, and let the ideas ferment in my head before I sit down to write.  But fermenting is not the same as reflecting.  In the fermenting process I am deliberately NOT thinking directly about a thing; the Moment of Silence offers time to confront a question head-on.

So as of today, there's a new policy here at Bennett Ink: the daily Moment of Silence.  I have a pile of things I've set aside to think about - including but not limited to this - but I've been too busy "doing" to think.  Now I see that thinking is an important thing to do, all on its own.

Are you thinking about anything in a new way - or for the first time?  How is it helping you?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Seth Godin is a Brilliant Man

I have read several books either written or edited by Seth Godin, but I only recently discovered his blog.  It's fast become one of the first emails I open in the morning.

A few days ago, Godin blogged about the business variant of my mother's old admonition, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything."  His contention - with which I am in violent agreement - is, "If you can't say something, don't say anything."

I still remember the time I interviewed the CEO of an investment fund that hired me to write a marketing brochure.  "What's different about your fund?" I asked him.

"We are value investors and liquidate our positions at a premium."  He paused to let the majesty of this statement sink in.

"Oh," I responded.  "Buy low-sell high."

I loved watching his face crumble.  And a few questions later, he finally abandoned the b.s. and gave me something real.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

House of Mirrors

Have you ever been to a carnival and stepped into a house of mirrors?  I did it once.  It's a disorienting experience, and I didn't much like it.  Everywhere I turned, there I was: sometimes reflected back exactly as I am but dozens of me - sometimes distorted, occasionally thinner (okay, that part wasn't so bad).  The idea is to find your way through the maze of reflections until you reach the exit.

So what does this have to do with writing?

I recently decided that I could add value for clients by teaching the principles of effective business writing.  For that I need a professional credential, so I trotted off to NYU and enrolled in a certificate program in adult learning.  This makes me an adult learner learning how to help adults learn.  Are you starting to see the mirrors yet?

Even more than that, it turns out that to learn how to help other adults learn I have to examine how I learn: What engages me and why?  What loses my attention and why?  What snaps my mind shut like a broken window shade?

I'm used to being, you should pardon the expression, "reflective" when I learn.  But usually the thing I'm reflecting on isn't ME.  And so I wonder, will thinking about the process of learning enhance the process or will it just make me feel self-conscious?

I expect to get more out of this house of mirrors than I did at the carnival - all I took away from that experience was a headache. But at this stage it still feels strange, being simultaneously a participant in and a subject of the class.  Does anyone else feel that way?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Distraction? Inspiration?

When I'm not writing speeches, I'm a singer - so I often find music going through my head at odd times.  A few months ago, I got pretty annoyed by it.  I was on deadline, had to come up with a title and theme and write an abstract for a speech by the end of the day.  But every time I tried to think about the speech, there was this song.

I tried to swat it away, to think serious thoughts, but it kept coming back.  Finally, I just gave up and listened to it for a moment...and I realized that I'd found my theme.  That song turned out to be the perfect entry point for the discussion my speaker wanted to lead.  Fortunately, he's secure enough of his business cred that he was open to standing up in a serious forum and quoting Rodgers & Hammerstein (well, the Hammerstein part of that duo, anyway).

I got to hear him deliver the finished product and I've never been so proud to hang out anonymously in the back of a room.  The audience loved it.  They were engaged in the speech within moments and they stayed engaged throughout.  Lots of meaty questions in the Q&A proved that the fanciful statement of the theme had enhanced rather than masked the points he wanted to make.

So I pay attention to distractions.  Because sometimes they're the doorway to creativity.