The fun is in the details

When you buy a CD from Amazon, you get a confirmation email. When you buy a CD from the indie music giant CD Baby, you get a comic masterpiece:

Thanks for your order with CD Baby!

Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow. A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing. Our world-renowned packing specialist lit a local artisan candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy. We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved “Bon Voyage!” to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day.

We hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. In commemoration, we have placed your picture on our wall as “Customer of the Year.” We’re all exhausted but can’t wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!


We miss you already. We’ll be right here at patiently awaiting your return…

All your friends at CD Baby

This email took CD Baby founder Derek Sivers all of 20 minutes to write. But notice how much memorable detail he crammed into less than 200 words. What a picture he paints! The exaggerated reverence—satin pillow, 50 employees polishing the CD, packaging it to ship in the light of an artisanal candle, the transportation by “private CD Baby jet.”

Just as my father told me many years ago, when you make people laugh they remember you. Email hadn’t been invented yet, so he spoke of a physical letter being passed around an office. Well, CD Baby’s email has been passed around the digital office: Google the phrase “private CD Baby jet” and you’ll find more than 60,000 citations. And who can begin to count all the readers those citations have reached?

By the way, Zappos seems to have gotten in on the act now. I just received this acknowledgment of a return:

Greetings Elaine Bennett,

Thank you for shopping with! We wanted to let you know that your return is back safe and sound in our warehouse. That trip over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house went smoothly.

I had no idea grandmother worked at Zappos. I hope they’re paying her well.

The Art of the Detail-Free Communication

The Trump campaign touted its candidate’s April 27th foreign policy speech—creatively titled, according to Trump’s own website, Donald J. Trump Foreign Policy Speech—as having been written by an actual speechwriter. Trump read it from a teleprompter and stuck very close to the written script. (Compare the Trump website’s text to the transcript published in The New York Times.)

Speaking with the aid of notes, we might reasonably expect the candidate to offer details about his plans. Not the nuts and bolts of $X billion here and $Y billion there—as I wrote yesterday, that level of detail numbs the mind—but the kinds of details that would establish his foreign policy goals by painting a memorable picture in his listeners’ minds.

Or not. According to,

One of the members of Trump’s team, Whaled [sic] Phares, told the Associated Press beforehand that the speech would have “no details.”

And indeed, that proved true. Instead of using his words to paint pictures, Trump offered lists. Speaking of the Arab world:

…We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed. Civil war, religious fanaticism, thousands of Americans and just killed be lives, lives, lives wasted. Horribly wasted. Many trillions of dollars were lost as a result. The vacuum was created that ISIS would fill. Iran, too, would rush in and fill that void much to their really unjust enrichment.

They have benefited so much, so sadly, for us. Our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster. No vision. No purpose. No direction. No strategy.

The closest Trump came to specific policy declarations included:

“A Trump Administration will lead a free world that is properly armed and funded.”

“We will spend what we need to rebuild our military.”

“…we will look for savings and spend our money wisely.”

Few would argue against any of these sentiments. And that’s something I encounter often in my work with businesspeople. I call it “And then…?” Syndrome.

Client: “We want you to write an op-ed about how important education is.”

Me: “Great! What’s the second sentence?”

Now, I don’t expect my clients to articulate a comprehensive national education policy—that is, assuming they’re not running for president. But for me to do my job effectively, I need specifics. Education is important because: We need smart people to hire. We need a more diverse workforce. We need…what? Details! Preferably the kinds of details that arrange themselves into stories.

Businesspeople often want to “get to the point.” And the point, they think, is the pronouncement: Whether it’s my client’s “education is important” or Trump’s (and every other politician’s) “we’ll look for savings and spend money wisely.”

But pronouncements are easily forgotten; stories stick. Researcher Gary Klein talks about the ire faced when he boiled down a multi-day conference by extracting the stories the presenters told, rather than the recommendations they offered. As Chip and Dan Heath explain it in their book Made to Stick, the presenters “…felt that they’d invested countless hours into distilling their experiences into a series of recommendations.” But Klein said,

“We want to explain to them how meaningless these slogans are in contrast to stories, such as the one that showed how they had kept the lines of communication open during a difficult incident in which a plant was shut down.” [emphasis added]

Not only are stories stickier, they often the best answers emerge from a personal story. What’s the client’s relationship to the educational system? They’re the first in the family to go to college? Their parent taught fifth grade? They discovered their calling thanks to an attentive teacher?

How does that personal connection shape their perspective? That’s the value a businessperson—or any of us—can add to the debate on a national issue.

It’s not all in the details

I’ve often talked about how specificity makes communications memorable. I’d like to amend that a bit.

Details that help you paint a picture—yes, fabulous. They capture your audience’s attention. But stacking up details until they’re as thick as a Manhattan phone book (ack! another metaphor destined for the digital trash heap)—not helpful. More often than not, they put your audience to sleep.

Think about the typical presidential campaign speech. Ronald Reagan told us it was “morning in America,” and through his words we saw the sun glinting off amber waves of grain. Barack Obama’s speech on race relations painted a picture of the past, the present, and the future he wanted to create:

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign – to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.

And then there’s the president’s annual State of the Union address. One of the most highly anticipated speeches of the year, and often one of the most boring. That’s because instead of painting pictures to help unite us in a vision of what their legislation will do for the country, presidents invariably offer a laundry list of bills and regulations they want to change. Very specific, yes. And very boring.

But what if you have to convey a bunch of boring details? you may ask.

Well, do you really? If the president didn’t reel off his (to date, only “his”) laundry list, would that legislation never make it to Congress? No. The mechanics of submitting bills has nothing to do with the ceremonial State of the Union address.

So what’s more important for people to remember? The details of the legislation or the results the president wants to achieve by proposing it?

Here’s Reagan again, in a speech he gave the night before he won the 1980 presidential election:

I believe we can embark on a new age of reform in this country and an era of national renewal. An era that will reorder the relationship between citizen and government, that will make government again responsive to people, that will revitalize the values of family, work, and neighborhood and that will restore our private and independent social institutions. These institutions always have served as both buffer and bridge between the individual and the state—and these institutions, not government, are the real sources of our economic and social progress as a people.

As marketers say, sell the benefits, not the features.

Contrast this with Bill Clinton’s second State of the Union. Clinton, arguably one of the best political orators of my lifetime, on foreign policy:

This year we must also do more to support democratic renewal and human rights and sustainable development all around the world. We will ask Congress to ratify the new GATT accord. We will continue standing by South Africa as it works its way through its bold and hopeful and difficult transition to democracy. We will convene a summit of the Western Hemisphere’s democratic leaders from Canada to the tip of South America. And we will continue to press for the restoration of true democracy in Haiti. And as we build a more constructive relationship with China, we must continue to insist on clear signs of improvement in that nation’s human rights record.

Who—other than the president’s foreign policy advisor—will remember this whole laundry list? Or care about it? What’s a GATT accord? Why should we care?

The State of the Union would much more impact if the president used details that get the audience (especially the TV audience, far larger than the folks gathered in the House Chamber) excited about the mission, about where the country will go once his proposals take effect.

I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.

Fourth of July: The Steaks of Summer

Parlez-vous “French dressing”?

I was well past 30 before I tried French dressing on my salad.

Nothing against the French—although a history teacher I had in England taught us that “the French are always revolting.” (We were studying the 19th century at the time, but somehow I think the comment was meant to be more all-encompassing than that.) No, my avoidance of French dressing had nothing to do with les enfants de la patrie and everything to do with one particular Irish-American. Namely my mother.

My mother was not what you’d call a cook. This is a woman who, given a huge freestanding KitchenAid blender as a wedding gift, sat the machine in a corner of the kitchen and used its bowl as a filing cabinet. Whenever you needed to find an important document, you’d find it in the mixing bowl.

My mother abandoned her wifely cooking duties as soon as she saw an out—passing them to my father when I was about 13. From that point on, the only thing I remember her making was reservations.

Which is why it was so odd that my mother managed to find herself in charge of one of the major social events of the summer: the club’s annual steak dinner. Steak—well, that was straightforward enough, and the men took charge of grilling it. The rest of the menu was my mother’s domain: Potato salad—50 or so pounds of potatoes that my cousin and I boiled and pared while still steaming, mixed with dozens of pounds of chopped onions. Cole slaw (someone else must have made that, or I’d surely have indelible memories of chopping cabbage). And salad—topped with my mother’s special “French dressing.”

I put that in quotation marks so as not to offend the good people of France. “French dressing” as translated by my mother was a proprietary blend of just two ingredients: ketchup and mayonnaise. (All together now: Merde!)

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with combining ketchup and mayonnaise. I know (and love) people who can think of nothing tastier in which to dip their French fries. But they call their concoction “ketchup and mayonnaise”—which, remarkably enough, it is. They don’t impugn an entire nationality, nor do they pretend it belongs on salad.

No wonder the French think Americans are crass and crude.

So that’s what Fourth of July conjures up for me: pseudo-French dressing, steak, and potato salad. How about you?

The chameleon of words

With the July 4th holiday upon us, I thought I’d investigate a word we Americans often use liberally around this time of year—and a word we don’t completely understand.

Is it a noun? Is it a verb? Yes. And how do we spell it? Barbecue, barbeque—the Aussies, who would rather do it than figure out how to spell it, stick with “barby” or “barbie.”

Where does it come from? The OED says Haiti; other sources propose that native people of what is now Florida invented it. Wikipedia doesn’t source that delicious fact, but if true it would make good ol’ BBQ a proto-American invention. Columbus found the natives roasting meat on sticks as far back as 1492, apparently.

I am neutral in the barbeque sauce wars; I don’t like any of them,. But I will defend your right to enjoy your smoked and/or roasted and/or grilled meat with whatever dressings you like. I guess you could say I’m pro-choice.

Just remember as you barbeque your barbeque that it’s both a noun and a verb. As is, I suppose, “hot dog”—my own favorite Fourth of July fare.

Time out

The irony is not lost on me.

Last week, Freelancers Union published a piece I wrote about the need for balance, unplugging—the importance of using the other F-word, Fun.

Now, I’m cursing my calendar, trying to find a clearing for just one day off somewhere in the next two weeks. Actually, I think my root canal today should take care of that, but it might be nice to unplug when I’m not in pain.

Now I’m not complaining. (I can’t; I started a “no complaints for a week” challenge today.) I love my work and I’m grateful to have clients who understand flexible schedules and the need for balance. But sometimes deadlines don’t flex, and this is one of those times.

A “busy season” in the summer seems cruel, especially for a baseball fan. Then again, the Mets haven’t exactly been tearing it up lately.

So enjoy your cookouts and your fireworks; I’ll be hunched over my desk. At least I won’t have to worry about mosquitoes.

One more time

I took away two solid lessons from my college education. That’s not bad for four years and $100,000, right?

One lesson came from an English professor, and I’ve written about it here if you’re interested.

The other lesson came from one of my favorite theater professors, still ponytailed and hightop-wearing after all these years: the inimitable Len Berkman. I took many classes from Len during my time at Smith College, but this lesson came from the very first: a freshman-level overview of theater from the dawn of time to the present.

Len assigned us many short papers that semester, but we could opt to perform a scene instead. He had just one rule: We had to perform the same scene twice, putting a different spin on it each time.

As a know-it-all 18-year-old, that was a hard thing to wrap my head around. I mean, obviously there’s only one right way to do things. Everyone knows that. Everyone except—thank goodness—Len.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve used that lesson. It keeps my mind supple when I’m brainstorming. It allows me to go to outlandish places—and stay there, client willing. It also helps me regroup if a client pushes back and wants to scrap my brilliant idea or rewrite a key section.

Creative people know there’s always more than one answer. I’m grateful that I learned that so early, from a master.




For anyone who has clients…

And especially for anyone who’s had a friend expect them to use their professional skills for free.

Now I know some readers don’t bother to click on links (I’m lookin’ at you, beloved spouse) so I will summarize—but in this case, pictures really are worth a whole bunch of words. The link leads to a satirical string of emails between David Thorne and a putative coworker who asks him to whip up a poster of her missing cat. Apparently the coworker is too distraught to type up the details on a plain piece of paper and stick a photo of the feline on it.

David uses his design powers to give his non-paying client exactly what she asks for. And hilarity ensues.

I found this post a while back on David’s blog, 27B/6, but I just discovered it’s been published in a New York Times best-selling book, The Internet is a Playground. In fact, that’s just the first of his many best-selling books (why did I never notice?). Excuse me, I think I just found my summer reading list.



Seth Godin started a small argument in my house the other day. I had the headphones on, listening to a podcast interview with him—sorry, I can’t remember which one—and at one point, I unleashed a rather loud, “WHOOOOAH.”

Of course the spouse wanted to know what I’d heard.

“Seth Godin just said, ‘Perfect is meaningless if no one sees it.'”

She said, “I disagree.”


The spouse has one of those coder-type jobs—no one sees what she does, but a mistake could gum things up for tens of thousands of people in the organization. So after I got over my initial shock, I understood the perspective.

I explained that Seth was talking more about people like me: I could spend a month crafting the perfect paragraph, but what’s the point if no one but me reads it? Better to ship today and correct, if you need to, tomorrow. Besides, when words interact with people, they form new ideas; some may even be better.

So I let my work go. I blog here daily—some posts undoubtedly better than others—and I meet my clients’ deadlines. Always.

My work may not be perfect, but it’s not meaningless. It gets seen.