Saturday, October 22, 2011

I gave a letter to the postman … but not recently

The personal letter – you know, the paper kind – has been in ill health for a long time. It caught a nagging cough with the advent of affordable long distance. It really started wheezing when everybody got email accounts. Now it’s nearly flat-lined because of social media.

I can’t remember the last time I found a real letter among the bills, catalogs, magazines and junk mail. Apparently I’m not alone. The Post Office says the average household receives personal mail – a greeting card with a note, for example – every two months.

Thank goodness for Hallmark. I treasure the cards I receive from family and friends and tuck many of those with personal messages away in a shoebox that is now overflowing. I especially cherish the cards from my grandkids. The birthday, Father’s Day and thank you cards they send tell a unique story that begins with a few scribbles, moves to little drawings and proudly printed names, and continues to fully formed thoughts and complex sentences that reveal the remarkable little people they have become.

I write quick notes to clients, jot a few lines in greeting cards and occasionally type, print and mail a short letter to my octogenarian father, who is not exactly cruising down the information superhighway. (He’s a retired postal employee, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.) The rest of my written correspondence is electronic.

My mother made me a scrapbook containing dozens of letters she had written her mother when I was an infant and toddler. My grandmother saved all of my mom’s weekly letters, perhaps in a shoebox. They are sweet, mundane and provide both an otherwise unavailable snapshot of my childhood and priceless insight into the person who was my 20-year-old mother.

When my son was in the Navy, I made sure to write him at least weekly, because I remember what it was like not to hear the mail clerk call my name. Though, I must confess that the opposite was usually true in my case. I was a newlywed in basic training and received several letters most days, much to the envy of the other well-shorn guys in my flight.

Email is fast, efficient and always available. Social media lets you correspond simultaneously with hundreds, thousands or even millions of people (if you’re Lady Gaga). Even though IT professionals and convicted inside traders will attest that email has a long electronic tail that is pretty hard to erase, I don’t know anyone who saves even their most memorable emails in a real (or virtual) shoebox. Too bad.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

If you say “f**k” when your shoelace breaks, what do you say when your tire blows on the freeway?

I was raised by a mother for whom OMG means “oh my gosh” and a father who once sent the backseat into a giggling state by calling a coworker a “horse’s rear end.” Their good example didn’t take. I played team sports, served in the military and lived in New Jersey. So I know my way around an expletive.

The same example was not set by the father in the classic “A Christmas Story,” who grownup Ralphie described this way: “He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master.”

I do regret that the best curse words have lost their power to shock. The South Park kids said “shit” 162 times on a recent episode – and that’s basic cable. Keep your ears open as you walk along a city street, shop the mall or sit in a restaurant and count the number of times you hear one of George Carlin’s seven words. Not in mixed company? Forget it. Pardon my French? So passé.

The preschool teacher told the kids that “stupid” was a bad word. That was three years ago. To this day, granddaughter Ava will stare daggers through me if I call a movie stupid, but go right on coloring if I happen to let the f-bomb slip during a ballgame.

The n-word still shocks me. Last winter my son and I attended a Phoenix Suns game and sat near a group of young African American men. Some sat in the row behind us, some in the row in front of us, but they were all together. The n-word word was clearly part of their everyday vocabularies and, yes, I know the “rule” that says minority groups can use certain words to describe themselves but that doesn’t give the rest of us the right to use them. Still, I was glad that my grandchildren weren’t there to hear the casual use of that offensive word.

“I know a really bad word and it starts with an ‘F,’” five-year old granddaughter Sophie recently told her mother. “That’s a very bad word that you must never say,” Amy told her. “In fact that’s the worst bad word of all.” “Oh,” said Sophie, “I thought the worst word was ‘noodlehead.’”

I’ve been trying to curb my swearing around the grandkids, with people I’ve just met and in general. But sometimes it’s pretty darn hard. See Mom? I’m trying!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

How to get your news releases noticed

Getting your press releases noticed in today's highly connected world of social media is often a challenge.

But here are three simple rules that guarantee wide exposure:

1. Be a former Speaker of the House and a Republican presidential candidate.

2. Be a pompous ass.

3. Have your press release performed by John Lithgow on the Colbert Report.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Lucas Fayne is a very satisfied man

Lucas Fayne may be the most satisfied man in America.

He's also proof positive that new media is a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. As detailed in The New York Times' always readable "The Haggler" column on April 24, Mr. Fayne has expressed his extreme satisfaction with the service and efficiency of 50 home improvement companies in geographies ranging from Denver, Oklahoma City and Madison, Ala.

In fact, Lucas is so consistently satisfied that he used almost identical words to describe his delight on the websites of at least 50 different companies:

“We were very satisfied with the service and efficiency of your company. Getting the quote was quick and easy, and your staff started on time each day and worked hard. We are very confident with the job you did and have been recommending you to all of our neighbors.”

Same sentiments, same words more or less, describing his interaction with 50 different companies.

As you've probably guessed by now, all of these companies used the same template to build their websites. The template included a "sample" customer testimonial as a placeholder. Every one of the companies was apparently so pleased with the sample that they didn't change it ... at least until their laziness was noticed by the NYT.

So much for crediblity and originality.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

54% of statistics are made up

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” This quotation, usually credited to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, came to mind today when I saw a clip of Arizona Sen. Jon Kyle on “The Daily Show.”

Speaking on the Senate Floor during the recent budget debate, Kyle noted that “well over 90 percent” of Planned Parenthood’s activities are abortion-related. The real number, it turns out, is closer to 3 percent. But, as we used to say in the Air Force, “close enough for government work.”

Kyle’s office later said that he hadn’t meant to imply that the 90 percent number he tossed out was a “fact.” It was merely a way to get his point across. Don’t confuse him with facts, I guess, because his mind is made up. Hyperbole is fine with me, as long as we’re in on the joke.

That was certainly true back in the 60s when legendary comedian, broadcaster and adman Stan Freberg posited that nine out of 10 doctors preferred Chun King Chow Mein, before showing us nine smiling Asians and one frowning Caucasian in lab coats. No reasonable person would have expected that Freberg had actually conducted a poll of doctors.

Statistics are powerful tools for writers, of course. Like good cooks, good writers know how to use data to spice up their writing without overdoing it. A few statistics used as proof points validate and support the ideas writers – or their clients – are trying to get across.

Communicators can also use statistics to talk about their work using the first language of their bosses and clients, many of whom live in a world of data. They expect communicators to be able to measure and quantify the results of their efforts, just like any other discipline.

I remember attending a conference about 15 years ago at which a communicator from a peer company presented on his internal communications measurement process, initiated to appease a data-crazy business unit president.

The communicator had done a great job of soliciting feedback from employees through various means and showed a couple of charts comparing his company’s data to “best-in-class” performance. During the Q&A I asked him where the best-in-class numbers came from, expecting him to cite some global survey or other credible benchmark. But, without shame or reservation, he admitted he had made them up.

At least he was honest.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Take my words, please

As someone who spends a lot of his time putting words in other people’s mouths, I like it when my clients care enough to own what I have written for them. Whether the project is a speech, article, op-ed or letter, it’s most satisfying to collaborate with the person for whom I’m ghostwriting and to go back and forth a few times until they are comfortable with the content.

After all, they – not I – will speak the words, get the byline or sign the letter. When it comes to ghostwriting, anonymity suits me.

I remember once – once – trying to get my props by letting a colleague know that I had actually written the joke the company president told at the awards banquet the night before; the very joke the colleague was now retelling to great acclaim. Narcissus was punished for his vanity and so was I. That colleague gave me plenty of opportunity to reflect on the value of staying anonymous by teasing me mercilessly about my presumed ability to control what came out of the president’s mouth.

I found myself thinking about the importance of speakers owning their words recently when India’s foreign minister delivered three minutes of someone else’s speech at an important conference. He did not realize his mistake and presumably would have gone on longer, but an aide stopped him and suggested he start over, this time reading his own script.

Talk about not owning his words – this guy didn’t even recognize them. Certainly he had not rehearsed thoroughly before taking the stage and it is possible that he hadn’t even reviewed the speech someone else had written for him. Seems to me this should be the minimum standard.

That reminds me of two of my favorite anecdotes about ghostwritten materials, both from the world of sports. Upon being asked whether his original autobiography was the first book he had ever written, Pete Rose supposedly remarked that it was in fact the first book he had ever read. I bet he was telling the truth.

Charles Barkley claimed he was misquoted in his 1992 autobiography “Outrageous,” later admitting the “misquotes” were his own fault. “I should have read it first,” he said. This is not turrible advice.

Friday, January 28, 2011

2011 Resolution: Lose some word weight on a daily basis

"I didn’t have time to write a short letter so I’ve written a long one instead." Often credited to a Sam – Johnson or Clemons – this quote speaks to the fact that careful writers struggle to keep their writing lean and crisp. It’s worth the effort.

There’s no substitute for the declarative sentence that is simple, clear and concise, trimmed of words that don’t add value. You don’t have to take my word for it.

Here’s what Strunk and White’s venerable “Elements of Style” has to say:

"Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

S&W’s essential guide goes on to list some examples of bloated phrases that can be easily replaced by lean ones. But they miss my least favorite, which I hear on a daily basis, and which grates on my ear every time.

“On a daily basis. On a weekly basis. On an hourly basis. On a whatever basis.” When daily or every day, weekly, hourly or whatever-ly” work much better.

Save a few words – and my eardrums – by banishing this waste of words from your vocabulary in 2011.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Can we talk... about arrogance & insecurity?

It was hard not to execute an eye-roll worthy of an exasperated preteen as a senior executive from a client company prepared to describe his corporation’s “personality.”

I immediately flashed back to the look on a former, brilliant, and brilliantly cynical boss’ face when a branding consultant from corporate headquarters asked, “If this company were an animal, what animal would it be?” I don’t recall his answer. I do recall that the consultant was quickly nicknamed Barbara Walters.

But just then the client did something quite unexpected. He made sense.

“This company is both arrogant and insecure,” he said. “We’re absolutely convinced that we can hit a home run every time. But we’re deathly afraid to step up to the plate.”

I knew the company very well; well enough to know that he was spot on.

I thought of this conversation last night as I watched the 2010 documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.” Despite all her success as a standup comedian, actress and writer – not to mention her trailblazing place in comedy and talk show history – it’s clear that Rivers gets no respect (with apologies to Rodney Dangerfield). Certainly no respect from herself.

Today, in fact, Rivers believes she is a living, breathing punch line for other comics, by virtue of her advancing age and love of plastic surgery. She’s right.

Just as in her act, Rivers holds little back in this documentary. What comes across is a person who is both (pause) both extremely arrogant and extremely insecure. She’s jealous of the success of others less talented than she perceives herself to be, fearful of those she views as cleverer and quick to put down perceived rivals and critics with the basest of insults. Her biggest boogieman is the empty calendar page, which she sees as proof positive that she us unwanted, underappreciated and unloved. She plays crappy clubs and tiny rooms in remote casinos, and hates herself for it.

I confess that I’m not the world’s biggest Joan Rivers fan. I saw her in Vegas sometime in the Eighties during one of her many hot periods, but found her too mean-spirited for my taste. Her opening act was an unknown named Garry Shandling, who I found to be much, much funnier. Rivers’ abrasiveness prevents me from empathizing too much with Rivers and her inner struggle.

Anyway, today I’m thinking about myself (surprise!) and specifically about whether there are times that my own arrogance or insecurity get in the way of my success.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

New Year's Usage Resolution (Part 1)

All of us who shove words together for a living have our least favorite words, phrases or devices – things we try to avoid in our own writing and annoy us in the writing of others.

Crap. I used the editorial we. I hate the editorial we! At best its use is dishonest, implying that the writer speaks for many others when he is usually sitting alone at his keyboard in his pajamas.

That is, of course, unless he meets one of the criterion listed by Roscoe Conkling, a post-Civil War U.S. Senator, who said that “There are three classes of people who use ‘we’ instead of ‘I.’ They are emperors, editors and men with tapeworms.”

To the best of my knowledge, I am none of the above and therefore resolve to remain “we-free” in 2011.