Words & music

I always forget how much I love poetry.

It’s funny that I forget how much I love it; I wrote a ton of it when I was a kid (even won an award once). And my favorite prose writers use words economically (kinda like poets). Good poetry can make words sing—even without music.

Case in point, one of my favorite poems in all the world: “Inversnaid” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Do yourself a favor and read it aloud. Feel how the words trip out of your mouth.

Only poetry can make words do this. How can I forget that?

This darksome burn, horseback brown
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpack, flitches of fern
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Genius and Broadcast TV

I rarely watch TV these days, but when I do one of my guiltiest of guilty pleasures is the CBS procedural Scorpion. It’s like the love child of NCIS and The Big Bang Theory, both of which I enjoy—less guiltily. Hey, what can I say? I’m a sucker for connection and in all of these shows the characters connect with each other in a wackily familial way that appeals to something deep within me.

Scorpion, as the Season 1 voiceover reminded us with every episode, is based on the life of a “real genius,” Walter O’Brien, who allegedly had the second-highest IQ ever recorded, or some such thing. (Hence the title of this post.)

What I didn’t know until I heard Walter O’Brien interviewed on the invaluable Tim Ferriss podcast is that O’Brien and his confederates at the real-life Scorpion consulting firm conceived of the show as a marketing tool. He figures once the show airs for a decade (it’s going into Season 3 in the fall), his company will be permanently embedded in its prospects’ minds. Try that, Ernst & Young. We’ll call this Option A, and it’s surely the first time anyone has attempted to use a fictional entertainment to market his company and recruit potential employees. Oh wait—unless you count The Apprentice.

Or perhaps (Option B) O’Brien’s bio is a load of, as they say in his native Ireland, malarkey—fluffed and air-brushed to make it look like something exceptional. In that case, the TV show burnishes an imaginary legend. (The comparisons to Donald Trump just keep coming.) It’s based on a lie. But isn’t all fiction?

Option A—O’Brien and company think out of the LinkedIn box to attract the highly specialized kinds of employees they will need as the company grows.  It’s brilliant marketing.

Option B—O’Brien has been dining out on some really good stories (apparently he actually has done high-level hacking work for legitimate clients) and he decides to cash them in for the biggest payday possible. It’s certainly not the path of least resistance, and there’s no guarantee any TV show will become a hit; even great ones fail to find an audience (I’m lookin’ at you, The Comeback). But if the show does catch on, O’Brien collects his executive producer fee, rakes in the bucks from international licensing (two seasons in and it’s already airing in 13 countries besides the U.S.), and establishes name recognition forever.

Also brilliant marketing? Maybe. But I’ve seen too many people get caught inflating their credentials. The climb toward the top may be fun, but the fall is never worth it. Perhaps there will be a Trump comparison to be made here too. Stay tuned.


For the birds

“I’m thinking of writing about the bird thing,” I told the spouse a couple of weeks ago.

“In your business newsletter?”

“Yep.” (Disregard the use of the word “newsletter.” I hate newsletters, and the spouse knows that. But I do update the people on my list when I run across something extraordinary. I call these “Occasional Flashes of Brilliance.”)

“But isn’t your business newsletter supposed to be about…business?”

I understood the confusion. It’s one my clients often experience when I explain that we need a personal anedcote to help the audience or readers connect with them.

Why should anyone care that I went trick-or-treating with my kid? They might ask. Answer: Because it’s an experience many people can relate to. And can serve as an analogy for a great many things, including a discussion of the masks we wear at work.

It’s important for people on my email list to get a sense of who I am—as a person, not just a business writer. I may know a ton about writing, but I’m not so savvy when it comes to grains. And so I wrote:

For the Birds: An Occasional Flash of Brilliance
I am not Nature Girl. Never have been, probably never will be.

So when the chef at the Quaker retreat center I visited this weekend served up a delicious roasted apple millet porridge, I had no idea what I was eating. I only knew it was the perfect meal on a late-May morning that felt like early March. The chef was kind enough to type up the recipe for me.

Back home, I Googled this magical, gluten-free grain and discovered…It’s birdseed. Depending on what variety of millet the chef used, I was eating cooked grass seed or bird seed—which is, when you stop to think about it (as you have to do if you’re not Nature Girl), basically the same thing.

If spring continues to elude us, you may want to cook up a bowl of birdseed for yourself. See the recipe below.

Then I got down to business, with an annotated list of my blog posts since the last email. And, yes, I ended the email with the recipe. If you’d like a copy, let me know and I’ll forward it to you.


What you don’t know

“We can absolutely turn that around for you by tomorrow,” my then-boss told the client. “Right, Elaine?”

I had no choice but to agree. Our client, riled up by something in the news that day—something, I probably don’t need to add, that was entirely outside our scope of service agreement with her organization—wanted an op-ed. It had to get written that night; no one wants an opinion piece about last week’s news. I understood that. I also understood that when you deal with clients, you occasionally encounter unreasonable expecations, ditto deadlines.

What I didn’t understand was…well, anything at all about the subject.

Today, that wouldn’t be a problem. But back then, the ink was barely dry on the check that funded Google. A web search yielded me some information, but not nearly enough to satisfy my yen for specificity. I like to paint pictures with words, but in this case, I was painting blind.

My client wanted me to write about the evils of circumcision. Just to be clear: we’re talking male circumcision. Just about the only person less well-suited for this writing assignment would be a lifelong resident of a convent. But there we were.

Now, I have written about many things I didn’t initially understand: like derivatives, back in the 1990s when even some of the people selling them didn’t quite know what they were. But at least then I had colleagues who could educate me. This…well, it really wasn’t the kind of thing I fancied discussing with the ladies in the office, and certainly not with the men.

My boss knew she was throwing me into the deep end. I think she kind of enjoyed the idea that her lesbian writer would be stuck in the office most of the night thinking about penises. (She was definitely that kind of person.)

I called my partner, who used to deal with them on a professional level (get your minds out of the gutter—she was a paramedic). She explained the situation to me, referencing various items of clothing, and I managed to bang out 600 or so semi-coherent words. Sadly, the media didn’t share our client’s outrage; the piece never got published.

You’ve all heard the old adage “write what you know.”

When you work for other people, sometimes you have to write what you don’t know, too. It’s not the most fun ever, but it’s a living.


“The feelings business”

Ask Brian Grazer what he does for a living and he won’t tell you he’s a movie producer. He certainly won’t mention his Academy Award. He’ll say, “I’m in the feelings business.”

That’s what he told me last week—well, not in person. On the phone. Well, no, Grazer didn’t call me. I was using my phone to listen to James Altucher’s podcast interview of him.

Still, Grazer might have called me. Because he’s famous for talking to people, and not just celebrities—anyone he hears about and finds fascinating. I’m fascinating; just ask my dog Fenway. So it’s only a matter of time.

Meanwhile, Grazer shares insights from many of his conversations in his book A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life, which is a serious contender to be the next thing I read. Nope; it just won.

Yes, I’m writing about the book even before I read it because Grazer said something in his interview with Altucher that I couldn’t wait to write about—that thing about being in the “feelings business.” Grazer distilled his career down to its very essence in just a few words—and you know I’m a sucker for that kind of communication skill.

What does Grazer see as the most important aspect of his work? Not that he oversees billion-dollar budgets and thousands of people. Not that he works with A-list stars and genius actors. Not that he creates memorable, award-winning movies and TV shows.

No, the most important thing is what those movies and TV shows create: feelings. Arrested Development stays with us because it made us laugh—and think; A Beautiful Mind stays with us because it made us cry—and think.

By that measure, I’m in the feelings business too. (So we’re already colleagues. Call me, Bri; let’s do lunch.) And so are my clients, at least for the duration of the speeches they deliver or the bylined articles we write.

I know I’ve said this before, and you can bet I’ll say it again:

Feelings connect us with people.

They’re the secret password that lets you into the private club in your audience’s hearts and minds. If you want to be remembered, you have to be real. You have to make them feel something.

It’s not always easy to convince a Type A executive to do that. But if people have given up their time to sit in an audience and listen to you speak, or to watch a video of your speech, or to read what you (and your trusty writer) have taken the time to write—then you have an obligation to give them something real in return.

The “feelings business”—we should all be in it.






Malcolm Gladwell on Conversation & Speaking

This morning I heard an interview Malcolm Gladwell did for Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics podcast. In discussing his analysis of Anders Ericsson’s “10,000 hour rule”—that it takes that many hours of practice to become an expert—Gladwell talked about his own evolution as a public speaker.

“I didn’t spend a lot of time studying others. Because I thought that what people respond to as an audience is authenticity.”

Readers of this blog will recognize that as my favorite A-word. Gladwell continues:

“So I spent a lot of time thinking about …what is the image I’m trying to project about the kind of person I am, the way that I see the world. And I finally realized that what I am is someone who’s not too formal or studied or…I’m conversational.”

I have heard this from so many speakers who insist on going into a speech armed with nothing more than a list of bullet points. “I want it to be conversational.”

So how does Gladwell achieve that conversational tone in his speaking? Let’s listen in:

“That meant that I had to, I really had to memorize everything. I couldn’t use slides and notes and it couldn’t seem like a classroom lecture; it had to seem like a conversation with me.”

In other words, he treats each speaking engagement like a TED Talk.


Most speakers don’t have the time to memorize a speech—especially if they speak on many different subjects at different venues. And, to be fair, it is part of Gladwell’s job to speak well. At this point in his career, his appearances command a hefty fee.

But communicating is part of an executive’s job, as well. Speaking can help raise the profile of the organization they lead, sell more of its products, increase its prestige. I encourage my clients to think of speech-giving not as something that takes them away from their “real”responsibilities, but as another facet of their job as leaders.

Being conversational doesn’t mean speaking off the top of your head—please, please never do that. But it does mean practicing. A lot. And as you practice, you will find yourself memorizing parts of the speech naturally.

I don’t share Gladwell’s aversion to looking at notes from time to time. Unless you’re an actor in a play, no one will fault you for having a script in front of you. But don’t  deliver your speech to the podium—if you glance at your notes, stop speaking and don’t open your mouth again until you’re looking at the audience. If you haven’t practiced your speech, those silences can seem interminable. Practice enough and your audience reads them as thoughtful pauses.

Conversational and thoughtful. Not a bad way to present yourself.


The power of story

Did you read my post yesterday about the flight attendant who created an improvised sympathy card for a woman whose grandson had been murdered in the Orlando shooting?

If you did, I bet you can still remember some details from the flight attendant’s story. And if you can’t remember specific details, I bet you can remember feelings you had. Maybe grief, empathy for the grandmother, pride at the actions of the flight attendants and the response of the passengers—maybe others.

Did the story change your mind about JetBlue as a company? It did mine. While I’ve never flown JetBlue, friends have told me about nightmare flights. And stories stick—the bad maybe even more than the good. But this story gave me the warm-fuzzies about JetBlue.

The company clearly has heart—the flight attendant wrote that corporate had offered to let crews add “JetBlue stands with Orlando” to the standard post-flight announcements. This crew saw the opportunity to move that sentiment from words into action.

Derek Sivers said a good story is worth more than dozens of pages of blather in an employee manual. Who reads those manuals? Maybe everybody—but who remembers dry rules and regulations? Probably nobody. But we all remember a story.

Next time you’re writing, will you remember that?

Of crises and corporate culture

I opened up my Facebook feed earlier this week and found this story, written by a JetBlue flight attendant named Kelly Davis Karas. I don’t know Kelly, but her story has been shared widely at this point and even made it to CNN. But I’m going with the Facebook post here, because it’s everything a personal story should be: detailed, emotional, resonant.

I hadn’t intended to make this post about comparative literature, but if you compare Kelly’s Facebook post with the CNN article, you’ll see a perfect example of authenticity vs. objectivity. If I were writing this up for JetBlue—either for an in-house communication or for an executive speech—I’d be quoting Kelly, not CNN.

Kelly Davis Karas
June 14 at 3:23pm · Kennebunk, ME ·

Below is a picture of Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo. Omar, as his friends and family called him, was a Latino man gunned down at an LGBTQ bar in Orlando last weekend. He was 20-years-old.

Today my dear friend Melinda and I had the sad privilege of attending to his grandmother on our flight as she made her journey to Orlando to join her family during this unspeakable time.

Knowing she was making this hard journey alone, JetBlue employees made sure to be at her side every step of the way. Melinda stood quietly by her wheelchair while we waited until it was time to board. Kellie, the gate agent, boarded with her and helped get her settled. Melinda and I gave her a blanket, a pillow, a box of tissues and water so she could be as comfortable as possible. She was understandably distraught, but met us with kindness and gentleness. And gratitude.

But here’s where our flight got truly inspiring. I had the idea to pass around a piece of paper to everyone on board and invite them to sign it for this grieving grandmother. I talked it over with Melinda and she started the process from the back of the plane. As we took beverage orders, we whispered a heads up about the plan as we went.

Halfway through, Melinda called me, “Kel, I think you should start another paper from the front. Folks are writing PARAGRAPHS.” So I did. Then we started one in the middle. Lastly, running out of time on our hour and fifteen minute flight, we handed out pieces of paper to everyone still waiting.

When we gathered them together to present them to her, we didn’t have just a sheet of paper covered in names, which is what I had envisioned. Instead, we had page after page after page after page of long messages offering condolences, peace, love and support. There were even a couple of cash donations, and more than a few tears.

When we landed, I made an announcement that the company had emailed to us earlier in the morning to use as an optional addition to our normal landing announcement, which states “JetBlue stands with Orlando.” Then with her permission and at the request of a couple of passengers, we offered a moment of silence in Omar’s memory.

As we deplaned, EVERY SINGLE PERSON STOPPED TO OFFER HER THEIR CONDOLENCES. Some just said they were sorry, some touched her hand, some hugged her, some cried with her. But every single person stopped to speak to her, and not a single person was impatient at the slower deplaning process.

I am moved to tears yet again as I struggle to put our experience into words. In spite of a few hateful, broken human beings in this world who can all too easily legally get their hands on mass assault weapons – people ARE kind. People DO care. And through our customers’ humanity today, and through the generosity of this wonderful company I am so grateful to work for, I am hopeful that someday soon we can rally together to make the world a safer place for all.

I will never forget today. ‪#‎Orlandoproud‬

I had intended to write here about empowering employees to embody the corporate culture in their interactions with clients and coworkers. But I think I’ll just leave you to contemplate the power of words. Excuse me while I hunt down another box of Kleenex.

“Hamilton” & Creativity

You could roll out a wheelbarrow full of adjectives and still not capture the brilliance that is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.

When I saw Hamilton at the Public Theater in February 2015—in previews, before any critic had anointed it as the groundbreaking work it undeniably is—I was astonished at how quickly it grabbed both my attention and my heart. Specificity. Complexity. Intelligence. Emotion—all the things I preach about to my clients, right there in one wondrous package.

Standing ovations have become the rule in New York rather than the exception. Someone in the front stands up during the curtain call, so everyone has to stand or miss seeing the actors’ bows. But the moment that preview performance of Hamilton ended, the entire audience leapt to its feet simultaneously. I’ve never seen anything like that before. And I probably never will again.

I’ve seen the show twice now—it’s even better on Broadway than it was downtown. But as remarkable as Hamilton is, what’s even more remarkable is the tsunami of creativity it has unleashed.

There’s the a cappella group that condensed the entire show into a beautifully arranged seven minutes.

There’s the fabulous opening number, which has been parodied in many ways by many people, including Lin-Manuel and the cast themselves: giving it the Sweeney Todd treatment at a Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fund-raiser and using it to introduce host James Corden at last weekend’s Tony Awards.

But this may be my favorite Hamilton-inspired song—the children from the cast of Fun Home (itself a remarkable, groundbreaking, inspiring, multiple Tony Award-winning show) addressing themselves to Lin-Manuel directly:

“Gee, Mr. Miranda” – Fun Home at Easter Bonnet Competition 2016 from Broadway Cares on Vimeo.

Do you feel a draft?

Writing yesterday about John Kenneth Galbraith drafting each of his speeches 13 times, I remembered a cartoon I saw framed next to the door of my friend Vanessa Park’s elementary school classroom. The caption seems to be cut off. It reads, “You wrote 82 drafts? I only wrote 79.”

Vanessa had some kick-ass English teachers when she was growing up (I know because we shared the same classes), and it turned her into a pretty rigorous English teacher herself. If the world had more of those, I might be out of a job. And so might Vanessa, who has now opened up her own editing shop. (She also blogs here.)

One year, she had a student whose mother created cartoons for The New Yorker. The experience Liza Donnelly‘s child had in Vanessa’s class inspired the cartoon above, an unpublished gift to my friend.

In the real world, 82 drafts might be a tad excessive. Early on in my career I had a client who went through so many drafts that I stopped identifying them by number and went to letters, which take longer to quantify. Later, working for someone even more finicky, I adopted a letter-plus-number system. Just thinking about it gives me PTSD.

Generally, sane clients require only a couple of drafts to get it right. I usually set my fee to accommodate two and a half drafts—first draft, major revision, minor revision. Some clients want to revise up until the last moment. Others, recognizing that they need time to rehearse—I love these clients!—freeze the speech a week or even two weeks ahead of time.

Musical theater legend Ethel Merman always stipulated that she would not accept changes to a new show less than a week before it opened. When composer Irving Berlin tried to change a lyric after her deadline, Merman retorted: “Call me Miss Bird’s Eye. It’s frozen.”

Would Berlin’s change have made the song better? Probably—he was Irving Berlin, after all. But would it have made Merman’s performance better to incorporate a change so close to opening night? Probably not. And she was enough of a pro to know that.

Draft when you need to, absolutely. But, as the old public service announcements used to say, “Know when to say when.”