Friday, April 29, 2016

The weekend read

You've been suited and booted all week, communicators. Now it's the weekend, and time to check out my finds of the week, shared via @dontgetcaught on Twitter and curated here just for you. These boots were made for walking toward getting smarter by Monday:
(Creative Commons licensed photo by Ale Ale)

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

From the vault: I don't write blog posts till I'm ready to write. Instead...

(Editor's note: This post originally appeared on the blog in 2014. It's still the way I handle my blog writing tasks, proving a durable approach--and I've even added a third blog since this first appeared. Often, these tactics allow me to prep dozens of posts in advance, a real boon to the blogger. The trick here, of course, is that I'm rarely ready to write at the last minute, and don't need to be, with this system.) I blog a lot--on this blog and on The Eloquent Woman, my public speaking blog, and now the Moderating Panels blog. Between and among the three blogs, I publish five posts a week, and occasionally more. Yet I don't spend all my time writing, because I don't write blog posts until I'm ready to do so.

That may sound obvious, but I work with many clients who spend all their time on the writing, whether that's thinking about the post, staring at the blog interface, or rewriting again and again. You might be sitting down "to write," but quickly get distracted by the need to find photos, copyright info, a link you remember but can't find right away. And it's distractions that lower the quality of your writing, new research shows. More important to me, as a business owner, I don't have time for all that. Here's what I do instead, while I'm waiting to write:
  • Collect string: I save anything that might be useful for the blogs in specific notebooks created for each blog in Evernote, which lets me clip from web pages, my email, or my RSS feed (currently Feedly Pro). Anywhere I'm reading, pretty much, can be saved there. I tag some saved items as "story idea" to make them easier to find, and I make specific notebooks for weekly features on each blog, such as the DGC blog weekend read or The Eloquent Woman's Famous Speech Friday feature. Because I use Evernote Premium, there's a strong search function I can use to find all the notes about, say, online video when I'm ready to write a post on that topic. (Use the Evernote link to get a free month of Premium when you sign up for a free Evernote account.)
  • Set up shell posts: I set up a shell post before I ever sit down to write. For most posts, that shell includes a title, perhaps an intro, links I want to include, quotes, photos or other illustrations--everything but the writing. That way, I'm not distracted by looking for those things when I'm ready to write.
  • Write a tweetable headline: My feed pushes out a tweet with the blog name and post title when it first publishes, so I've learned to make the headlines fit within 120 characters and, if appropriate, to include @ symbols, hashtags, and Twitter handles.
  • Get credits in: If I need hat tips or photo credits, those go right into the shell post--a huge timesaver.
  • Reading what else is out there: A subset of string-gathering, I read widely and listen to audiobooks and podcasts like they're going out of style. Mobile devices and tablets mean I can be collecting string while doing many other things, and if I have several shell posts set up or story ideas tagged, I'm ready to save what I'm reading or listening to and know where it belongs.
  • Wait: If nothing comes to me on a topic, even though I know it has potential, I wait. It might be my best quality control measure on the blog. To balance any anxiety over not having enough material--which might prompt me to post even when I'm not ready--I just make sure I have plenty in the queue. Waiting then lets me pull disparate pieces together in unusual ways that work better for me and my readers. 
  • Split burgeoning piles in half: The process of saving many draft posts in "shell" form also lets me quickly see when a post has many links and threads, before I start writing. Sometimes that prompts me to turn that into more than one post, a bonus for my blogging--and something I might not realize until I'd put in too much effort, without this system.
Those of you with interns and assistants can train them to do the same before you start writing, but this system makes it much easier even if you're flying solo. On Not Writing takes a deep look at putting your writing down for a long time, and is worth considering if and when you need a longer break. I'd like to think that my system builds in shorter breaks with purpose, keeping it all fresh.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Thiophene_Guy)

Friday, April 22, 2016

The weekend read

Pollen count rising all week for you, communicators? Shake it off and check out my finds of the week, shared via @dontgetcaught on Twitter and curated here just for you. Nothing to sneeze at in this collection:
(Creative Commons licensed photo by Alastair Vance)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Saving that op-ed: 5 fixes for a lame opinion piece

I don't offer writing and editing services very often anymore, but recently, a client approached with a problem to solve. Her nonprofit had results to report from a big initiative, and the PR firm hired to do a variety of tasks just couldn't pull an op-ed together. They'd done all sorts of prep--from interviewing the leaders to writing a draft--but it just wasn't hanging together. Could I take a look and perhaps fix it? In less than a week?

The client was good enough and smart enough to allow for the possibility that the op-ed was beyond repair, but really wanted to try again. So I looked at the resource materials, compared them to the most recent draft, and threw out all but a few sentences with data points in them. The result, after a bit more research, writing, and editing was a draft that yielded this comment: "Thanks again. We didn’t know if we could make this op ed happen.  Now I know we can."

What exactly did I do? I just followed my five favorite tests to guide the fixing of an opinion article:
  1. Does it have an opinion or distinct point of view? Most lame or overblown or ineffective opinion articles are missing just that: An opinion, or at least, a distinct viewpoint on an issue. The "op" in op-ed stands for "opposite the editorial page" in newspaper parlance, not opinion. But there's no quicker way to get yours rejected than to leave out a clear opinion. This one made a common mistake, talking about the program and the fact that it worked, not how it worked in a novel way, nor why it worked despite the odds against it. Talking about the fact that it worked is a description, not an opinion. Handily, the leaders of this project had decided points of view, expressed in the background material I had to work with. I tossed a lot of declarative sentences and put in the opinions.
  2. Does it included the detail needed to keep it from getting puffy? This particular draft had an overabundance of jargon, summary sentences, and vague groupings in it, largely rearranged from existing documents. But it was short on specifics. Fortunately, there was plenty of data available to bolster the position we were going to take. It helps to remember that your op-ed is not a brochure, nor should its contents draw from a brochure.
  3. Were you judicious with your data? This piece was short on data, but the opposite problem is another litmus test for me, as too much data is as bad as not enough. You don't need to drown the op-ed in every number you possess. My challenge here was to avoid adding too much data to make up for the lack of it in the original draft.
  4. Can we see your viewpoint early and late? If we don't get a good whiff of your point of view right at the start, and again at the end, your op-ed isn't doing its job. Don't hope that the reader will stick with you as you build your case into a crescendo at the end or the middle. Make it clear, first and finally.
  5. What's holding it together? Have you used something to keep us interested throughout? That might be a metaphor or analogy that winds all the way through...an anecdote that helps prove your point early and late...or some other storytelling device that makes it easier, even interesting or fun for your reader to follow along. I found a metaphor that worked for this initiative, illustrating its risk-taking and results, and wove it throughout so the approach made a bit more sense, faster.
The assignment was another reminder of the value of these five factors, since most of them were missing from the draft. You'll do much better if you plan them into your op-ed from the beginning. If they're missing, you may have a draft, but you'll have much more trouble getting it published. For more tips right from the source, check out Op-Ed and You, a useful article from the New York Times on what it's looking for in your draft.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Bart Everson)

Friday, April 15, 2016

The weekend read

Close the umbrella that was your week, communicators, and contemplate the sunny prospect that's the weekend. Time to shake off the storms and check out my finds of the week, shared via @dontgetcaught on Twitter and curated here just for you. Jump right into the puddle:
Unfurl that umbrella: Buy my ebook, The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panels; tell your colleagues to put this blog in their feeds; sign up for my free monthly newsletter, or let me know how we can work together in 2016 with an email to eloquentwoman at gmail.com.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Sergej Babikovs)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

12 years in, extraordinarily happy about my 'Leap'

When I first started telling people that I was leaving my job to start this consultancy, I also was serving on the board of a nonprofit. At one of our social events, the spouse of a board member seemed very focused on quizzing me about this apparently shaky new venture. Did I have clients? Did I have a reserve fund to get started? Did I have an office set up and administrative help? Had I researched my prospects? Was I prepared to market my services?

I was feeling pretty proud that I could answer each question--I'd done my homework. But despite my positive answers, each one got the same reaction from her: "Oh, I could never do that." Over and over. Until finally, I leaned forward, patted her hand, and said, "Don't worry. I won't ask you to." Later, it occurred to me that that conversation wasn't about me at all, but more likely about her fear that her husband--partner in a big DC law firm--would get it into his head to leave and go independent.

The idea of leaving your workaday job to go independent may be infectious, but it isn't necessarily easy. In this, my second turn at independent work, the business has weathered the Great Recession and my breast cancer, stretched across the globe, and expanded exponentially. But you can forget work-life balance: It's put years back on my life, in the form of less stress and more joy, creativity, variety, and opportunity. I can't have office politics or gossip with myself. And I can say that my work involves exactly what I love to do, and eliminates those tasks at which I excel, but don't care for so much. I say "no" to work that doesn't feel right or meet my parameters, and my work schedule is still full. And I really, really like and respect my boss.

Not everyone can say that, of course, and that's what prompts many to consider a leap. Brené Brown, in this essay, imagines the so-called midlife crisis as just a wake-up call:
I think midlife is when the universe gently places her hands upon your shoulders, pulls you close, and whispers in your ear: 
I’m not screwing around. It’s time. All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go. 
Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts. I understand that you needed these protections when you were small. I understand that you believed your armor could help you secure all of the things you needed to feel worthy of love and belonging, but you’re still searching and you’re more lost than ever. 
Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through you. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.
Or as writer Anne Lamott said so well, "What if you wake up some day, and you’re 65… and you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life?” What if, indeed.

Recently, I was catching up with radio host and reporter Tess Vigeland's book Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want for my public speaking blog, The Eloquent Woman. Vigeland left her plum job with public radio's Marketplace with little planning and no real Plan B, and gave a speech soon after her leap about what that felt like. I wanted to blog about the speech. But the book did something else for me, turning into a nice review of why I'm so glad I made my own leap.

My own leap had plenty of planning in advance. One advantage of having had a successful stint as a freelance journalist early in my career meant I knew enough to plan. But it still felt like a leap. Today, I field calls from former colleagues or current clients who are mulling a leap. Some take it and thrive, some try it and go back to a steady job, some don't venture forward. All of them would benefit from reading this thoughtful book. Vigeland shares her own process, talks to experts about transitions like hers, and finds others who've tried it to share their experiences. Along the way, this book is the thinking-through process that you need, even if you never make the jump. You might need it to realize why you want to stay where you are, or to give you the courage to leap, or at least try planning for it. You can order this book in many formats, but the audiobook lets you get the advantage of Vigeland's great radio voice in the bargain, as well as the live recording of her speech about the leap she was making.

My leap happened after I won a top career award...at age 42. I wondered what was next, then remembered that when I left journalism for a new career in communications, I had promised myself that I'd go back to my own writing, and working for myself. Making good on that promise has been my best decision ever.

Year 13 of my business starts three weeks from today. How can we work together in it?

Friday, April 08, 2016

The weekend read

Let's all be mindful of one thing, communicators: It's the weekend. Time to emerge from the muddy week just past and meditate on the lotus blossoms that are my finds of the week, shared via @dontgetcaught on Twitter and curated here just for you. Remember, no mud, no lotus:
Bloom where you're planted: Buy my ebook, The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panels; tell your colleagues to put this blog in their feeds; sign up for my free monthly newsletter, or let me know how we can work together in 2016 with an email to eloquentwoman at gmail.com.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Evangelio Gonzalez)

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Tell It Better: Campaign storytelling and the Whistlestop podcast

A popular Democrat who was urged to run, but took too long to make up his mind. A candidate all the media thought was invincible, a juggernaut who didn't need to get into the substance, just attack his opponent. Another Democrat who used localized data to connect better with voters, pushed by a much more liberal campaigner on one side and a Republican widely assumed to be in the lead on the other.

Maybe you think I'm talking about Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton. But no: I've been listening to the Whistlestop podcast with John Dickerson, which takes historical dives into U.S. presidential history. So those were references to Mario Cuomo, Thomas E. Dewey, and Harry Truman.

Aside from being a somewhat comforting reminder that the crazy 2016 presidential campaign is not, in fact, all that novel, Whistlestop is a little goldmine for communications pros. While you learn a little history and hear its echoes in today's headlines, you'll also get lessons in media strategy and media gaffes, and learn about the inside view of campaign speeches, speechwriting, and storytelling. Teddy Kennedy's inability to tell a TV interviewer why he should be president is here. So is Bill Clinton's rambling, awful 1988 Democratic convention keynote speech, Truman's astonishing 350+ whistlestop speeches customized with local data in the 1948 campaign, and many more. You also hear how candidates of yore were described as speakers. Truman's opponent, Thomas E. Dewey, delivered echoes of George W. Bush, saying, "America's future is ahead of us," and was described at rallies by a New Yorker reporter this way: "He comes out like a man who has been mounted on casters and given a tremendous shove from behind."

Gaffes aside, there are many diamonds to mine here in the vein of storytelling. My favorite storytelling example so far is in this episode about John McCain's 114 town hall appearances in New Hampshire, campaigning against George W. Bush (who, in contrast, didn't set foot in the state). Dickerson describes McCain's success with this effective bit of storytelling from his prisoner of war days--a story he told at each of the town hall appearances he made. I've transcribed it fully here:
The North Vietnamese, for many years, kept the prisoners of war in solitary confinement or 2 or 3 to a cell. Thanks to the efforts of millions of Americans, including our veterans, the Vietnamese changed that treatment and moved us from solitary confinement or 2 or 3 to a cell to cells with 25 or 30 in each cell. One of the people that moved into the cell with me, when I was moved, was a young man by the name of Mike Christian. Mike Christian came from a very, very poor family near Selma, Alabama. He didn’t wear a pair of shoes until he was 13 years of age. At 17 he enlisted in the United States Navy, later became an officer, and later became a bombardier navigator in an A6 aircraft and was shot down and captured about a year before I was. Mike had a keen appreciation of the opportunities that service to our country in the military provides. 
As part of the change in treatment, the Vietnamese allowed us to receive packages from home that had small articles of clothing, or a handkerchief, or something like that, in it. The uniform that we wore in prison was a short sleeved blue shirt, blue trousers that looked like pajama trousers, and sandals that were cut out of automobile tires. Now I recommend that very highly, that one pair last me five and a half years. Anyway, Mike Christian was able to fashion himself a bamboo needle, and got a piece of white cloth and a piece of red cloth, and over about a month, he sewed on the inside of his shirt the American flag. Every evening, before we would have our bowl of soup, we would put Mike Christian’s shirt of the wall of our cell and say the Pledge of Allegiance. Now, I will freely admit to you saying the Pledge of Allegiance to our flag and our country is not usually the most important part of our day. I want to tell you that--in that prison cell, a couple of guys had already been there for 7 years--pledging our allegiance to our flag and our country was indeed the most important part of our day. 
One day, the Vietnamese came and searched our cell, found Mike Christian’s shirt with the flag sewn inside of it, removed it. That evening they came back, opened the door of the cell, called for him to come out. He did. They closed the door of the cell and for about the next hour they beat him very severely, after which they opened the door of the cell and threw him back in. The cell in which we lived had a concrete slab in the center of it, on which we slept, and in each corner of the room, a light bulb shone 24 hours a day, rather dimly. Well, we cleaned up Mike as well as we could. You could imagine he was not in great shape, and I went over to lay down on the slab to go to sleep, and as I did, I happened to look over, and in the corner of the cell beneath a dim light bulb, with a piece of white cloth and a piece of red cloth and his bamboo needle and another shirt, with his eyes almost shut from the beating he had received, was, of course, my friend Mike Christian, sewing another American flag. 
Mike wasn’t sewing that flag because it made him feel better. He was sewing that flag because he knew how important it was to us to pledge our allegiance to our flag and country. I think of Mike all the time, but I also know that there are young men and women who are serving today who is every bit as good or better than Mike and I were. And I’m so proud that we are associated with the best of America who are serving our nations Armed Forces, who’s carrying on the noble tradition of a young man from a small town near Selma, Alabama named Mike Christian.
Why does this story work? It uses symmetry (flag-sewing at the start and finish) and an "invisible visual," a sticky image that stays in the mind's eye. The story is loaded with concrete details, rather than abstractions, which adds credibility to the speaker. It's short and specific and personal--no one else can tell this story in just this way. And while that third paragraph may seem a little rambling, it purposefully ends with the phrase McCain wanted to emphasize, "sewing another American flag." Leaving that detail to the end of the sentence also adds a little suspense, another key ingredient in a good story.

There's one more important factor in this story, and it's really the first consideration you should have when planning a story in your speaking gigs: Your audience. As Dickerson points out, this story regularly got a lot of applause--because it felt good to the audience members to applaud this story. Why is that? It was a story that had nothing to do with the campaign itself, but with the shared values between the candidate and the voters: love of country, but also admiration for bravery and service, and a hatred of human rights abuses. In fact, Dickerson says, McCain made the storytelling and the campaign the same thing, a reflection of integrity.

McCain went on to win the Republican New Hampshire primary in the 2000 campaign, a real upset chalked up to this deliberate approach to what's called "retail politics," otherwise known as showing up in the smaller, non-arena-sized venues. Dickerson is no slouch in the storytelling department, making history fun and intriguing and relevant to today, adding his insights from the current campaign trail as well as from those he's covered in the past. A juicy part of this episode is Dickerson's own testimony to how long McCain could talk at a town hall and his cheesy humor, in addition to the moving story--as a reporter on the trail, Dickerson certainly sat through enough of these speeches to learn them by heart.

We're not hearing enough of this type of storytelling in the 2016 campaign, so this, to me, is a great reminder that your best stories will be the ones the audience feels good about applauding.

(Image via Wikimedia.org)

Friday, April 01, 2016

The weekend read

No fooling: It's the weekend, or nearly so. Time to pause from the office practical jokes and check out my finds of the week, shared via @dontgetcaught on Twitter and curated here just for you. You won't feel foolish, just smarter by Monday:
Won't get fooled againBuy my ebook, The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panels; tell your colleagues to put this blog in their feeds; sign up for my free monthly newsletter, or let me know how we can work together in 2016 with an email to eloquentwoman at gmail.com.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Hans Splinter)