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.