Monday, June 20, 2016

Moving to WordPress

Hey folks,

I've moved the blog over to WordPress, so please visit us at


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

My own medicine

This morning's post comes from the "Do As I Say, Not As I Do" Desk.

I wish we could tie all the acronyms in the world in a bagful of rocks and throw it in the nearest river. But when I wrote about that a few weeks ago, I granted a reprieve to generally well-known acronyms, like FBI.

Of course, the definition of "generally well-known" depends on your audience. As I was reminded by a couple of loving "ahems" from two quite intelligent friends who have been paying close attention to my recent writing. And my increasing use of the term "C-Suite."

I could argue that C-Suite is an abbreviation, not an acronym. I'd win that argument, too. But the larger point is that not everyone understands what it means. "C-Suite" encompasses all those folks with "Chief" in their titles—Chief Financial Officer, Chief Information Officer, Chief Ethics & Compliance Officer. A business audience will understand it, but my friends have built careers outside of the corporate world. If you want to speak to a broader audience than that, you'd do well to avoid it.

I said "a business audience will understand it," but as I wrote those words I remembered that, in fact, when I first encountered the term it puzzled me. As has every piece of business jargon I've encountered in over 25 years of writing for the corporate world. The first time one of my Wall Street bosses praised a speech I'd written by saying, "You really added value here, Elaine," I had to suppress a giggle all the way back to my office. "Value" seemed a very odd way to describe creativity. But I digress.

In using the term "C-Suite" without explanation, I had fallen victim to what Chip and Dan Heath call (in their excellent book Made to Stick) the Curse of Knowledge—"the difficulty of remembering what it was like not to know something." I've built a career on not being "cursed" by too much knowledge of the business world. It's how I justified not pursuing an MBA years ago, when I write for so many people who have that degree. I figure my "value" to them is that I can recognize the difference between complex ideas and, you will pardon the expression, bullshit couched in complex language. The former I explain, the latter I call out.

Anyway, lesson learned. "C-Suite" will become, I guess, "leading executives." Excuse me, I've got to go rewrite my marketing materials now.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Getting to know you: Understanding "Authenticity"

Authenticity has been a huge buzzword in business for a while. As I read it, businesses mean that a gay employee should not have to hide his husband's in a desk drawer; a parent—of whatever gender—should not have to pretend that being at the kid's school play is less important than sitting in a meeting; an African American employee can wear her hair any damn way she pleases, even (especially) if it doesn't look like "white" hair.

Hiding one's true self requires an awful lot of effort, effort that most of us would much rather spend on—oh, I don't know—doing our work. And, yes, just about everyone "covers" some aspect of their personality, as this excellent research report by Deloitte made clear a few years ago. Even straight, white men—the folks that everyone but Beyoncé assumes "rule the world"—even half of them have something they cover. Imagine if we stopped expending energy in covering and just lived our lives.

"Authenticity" is starting to generate a backlash, though. And that makes me sad, both as a writer and as a human being. If you have never been in a position where you felt you had to hide some part of who you are, you are very lucky indeed. Federal law now recognizes my marriage, but in more than half the states in the U.S. an employer could fire me for putting my wife's photo on my desk. So authenticity means a lot to me as a person.

And as a writer and writing coach, I know the most effective way for my clients to connect with the audiences they want to reach is to allow themselves to be seen as human. By which I mean vulnerable (so they can demonstrate their strength) and occasionally fallible (so they can show how failure enabled their later successes). As the cliché goes, nobody's perfect. Audiences want to feel that.

And whether it's a speech or a written piece, audiences also want to connect with your real personality. Are you introspective? Let us in on your thought process. Are you funny? Don't be afraid to make a joke. I'm not saying to turn your presentation into a Robin Williams-style free-association free-for-all. But laughter is a great gift to give people, and there's no quicker way to create a bond between you and the people reading your words or listening to you speak.

What does authenticity NOT mean? It does not mean saying the first thing that pops into our heads. It does not give people a license to be publicly rude or sexist, as this op-ed from The New York Times implies.

But what if I am authentically rude or sexist? I hear you ask. Then the norms of polite society—and corporate culture, which tends to enforce its norms more forcefully—will soon put you in your place. And I hope you enjoy it.

Brené Brown posted a rejoinder to the Times op-ed on LinkedIn this weekend and restated her complex definition of authenticity. Have a read:
"The core of authenticity is the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable, and to set boundaries."
That's who I want to be. That's who I want my clients to be. How about you?

Monday, June 6, 2016

Keep the kimono closed!

Am I alone?

Who else cringes when you hear an executive talk about "opening the kimono"?

I don't know, maybe they think it's cool to use a multicultural reference—the phrase obviously originates in Japan. Or maybe they just like thinking about a slender, submissive Geisha disrobing for her customer. I had always assumed it referred to samurai demonstrating that they were unarmed. But wherever it comes from, it should go back there. Quickly.

While the orators who use it may be thinking of beautiful, naked women, when hear the phrase I picture the speaker opening his kimono. And that is generally not a pretty picture. Really, the last thing I want to think about in a business context is a flabby, hairy, naked, middle-aged man. (Apologies to any of you reading this over breakfast.)

It should go without saying in this day and age—I just checked the calendar and yes, we really are still talking about casual sexism in 2016—that talking about or implying naked anyone in a business context is just plain inappropriate. Unless you work for Playboy—but even they've stopped publishing nude photos.

Let's all agree: Keep the freaking kimono closed.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Patience, grasshopper

I'm not the kind of gal who laughs in church. But that's exactly what I did when our friend took us to his parish church in Rio de Janeiro and I came face to face with my patron saint.

I hadn't known he was my patron saint—in fact, I'd never heard of him before—but the name at the base of his statue translated from the Portuguese loud and clear: Santo Expedito (translation: Saint Hurry-Up) or St. Expeditus, for those of you who like your saints in Latin.

I am many things, many of which are good. But one thing I am not is patient.

So I am working on it. They say meditation will help. When I get past five minutes on my own, I'll let you know.

In the meantime, Santo Expedito sits on my desk, holding up his cross that says "Hodie" (translation: Today, dammit).

Saturday, June 4, 2016

J-Lo & Socrates: Pop Culture Saturday

Today's Pop Culture Saturday post comes from the archives:
When pop culture meets, well, culture culture the results can be unintentionally hilarious.

Jennifer Lopez plays a high school teacher in her movie The Boy Next Door. At one point, the hunk of the title brings her a gift: A leatherbound book with gilt-edged pages - a volume that would have been right at home in Queen Victoria's library. J-Lo demurs that she can't accept such an expensive gift. "This is a first edition!" she says, checking inside.

One small problem. The book is very clearly marked "The Iliad by Homer."

See it for yourself here (you'll have to sit through a 30-second ad, but trust me it's worth it.)

Apologies if I've spoiled The Boy Next Door for you, but I don't really think there's a lot of overlap between my readership and J-Lo's target demographic. Likewise probably not a lot of overlap between her viewership and classical scholars. What percentage of Americans even know that there was a famous Homer before The Simpsons?

While the dumbing-down of popular culture may spell the end of Civilization As We Know It, there's an equally challenging trend I need to watch out for as a business writer: "smartening-up."

The first time I was asked to write on the subject of Ethics, I went straight to the source: Aristotle. I mean, who better than "the father of Ethics"? Now, I'm no dummy - the speech wasn't entirely about ancient Greek philosophy. I tied Aristotle to a contemporary event, in which journalism students had gotten caught cheating on an exam. And not just any Ethics exam.

It was a great speech. But it was not a great speech for that particular speaker. And in the end, that's really all that matters. So I gave Aristotle the heave-ho in favor of material that better fit my executive's brand. And the world became a more ethical place, at least for an hour.

LBJ knew this stuff innately. Maybe not Ethics, but brand-building. When his writers showed him a draft that used some words of wisdom from Socrates, he didn't cut the quotation - the sentiment was too good. He just crossed out "Socrates" and substituted "my granddaddy."
President Johnson was a smart man. He just didn't want too many people to know it.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Too good to lose, not good enough to win

Seven hits and more than a dozen walks. The Mets had 20 men on base in Wednesday afternoon's game—and scored exactly one run. The White Sox tied it up in the eighth, and the frustration continued for five more innings as I thought about the air conditioning back in my office. The Mets were not bad enough to lose, but not quite good enough to win, either.

Business writing is often like that. And as a writer—and as an audience member—it drives me crazy. I'm not saying our clients need to swing for the fences every time. Not every utterance needs to be provocative or world-changing. But so often, they fear anything that strays from the mom-and-apple-pie norm.

Talk about your successes, yes—but be honest about your struggles, too. Because overcoming those struggles put you in the position to achieve those successes. When you have the opportunity to reach an audience, whether through a speech or in writing, use that opportunity to say something. Fill the empty space with something worth your audience's while. Be good enough to win.

Sometimes that requires taking a risk. But that's the only way to get the reward.

As for the game, well the White Sox play in the American League, where  designated hitters bat in place of the pitchers. But by the 13th inning yesterday, the Sox were out of options so they sent their relief pitcher to the plate. He's only stood in the batter's box three times in his entire career. Risk? You bet.

The guy hit a double—I can still hear the crack of the ball on his bat. A couple plays later, he scored the winning run. [Sigh.] Risk often leads to reward. I wish the Mets had thought of that.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Wanna bet?

In his book Steal Like an Artist (read it, and its companion piece Show Your Work, as fast as you can), Austin Kleon writes about what he calls the creativity in subtraction:
"Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat with only 236 different words, so his editor bet him he couldn't write a book with only 50 different words. Dr. Seuss came back and won the bet with Green Eggs and Ham, one of the bestselling children's books of all time."
One of my favorite lyricists, the great Lorenz Hart, wrote his song "I Could Write a Book" on a dare, too. Some fool at a dinner party bet him that he couldn't rhyme "bookends." Check out the link to see how he did it.

A bet can be a great motivator. Set a goal—whether it's to use a certain structure in your next creative endeavor or to stretch your comfort zone in a specific way—and make a bet with yourself, or a friend. You never know what brilliance you'll unleash.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Things I don't believe in

I don't believe in Bigfoot. Or that thing in Loch Ness. I don't believe in monsters under the bed (any fan of Pixar movies knows they come from the closet). And I don't believe in writer's block.

Probably half the people reading right now think I've just set myself up for something horrible. Like the scantily clad sorority girl in the slasher movies who barges into the deserted building with a blithe, "Nothing to worry about in here." Famous last words.

That's not to say I haven't put in my time staring at a blank computer screen. Or praying, like Salieri in Amadeus, for inspiration to strike NOW. Of course I have; I'm human.

But I don't call that "writer's block." I call it working.

Give it a label and you pathologize the behavior. It's not a disease; it's part of the process.

Writers need to think before we create. We need to synthesize ideas, macerate them so the flavors meld and create something new. Sometimes that process takes more time than we'd like. I've come to realize that if I can't think of an idea on a topic I'm supposed to be writing about, it means I probably don't have enough information. Time for more research.

Okay, it's not exactly as smooth as that sentence made it sound. "I've come to realize"—yes, but do I always remember that "I've come to realize"? Or do I spend a few frustrating hours trying to pound a square peg into a nonexistent hole before I identify what's going on? You might think I'd get better at doing this—or at least faster—after 25 years as a professional writer. (Well, you might not think that. But I do.)

Even if I'm not always quick enough to recognize and jump over the hurdle, I still understand that's all it is—a hurdle. It's not a disease, not a psychopath waiting to rob me of my ability to write. It's a process.

Don't make the fear stronger by feeding it. Walk away, clear your head, write something else. And if you must name something, name the glorious feeling of your fingers flying over the keyboard: the Write Stuff.