Tag Archives: writing

An Optimistic Start?

28 Dec

Speeches have been on my mind. I have a few lined up this week, and they do get my blood going. The build-up, the thrill of the unexpected (hopefully not something embarrassing) and the fun of sharing information with a group that is actually interested in learning something. For all of these reasons, I have come to seek out opportunities to present. This was not always the case.

imagesMy first experience with public speaking was with the Reynoldsburg, Ohio Optimists’ Club. I was in fourth grade (I think?). My memory is not so good here, probably because this was not a positive experience. Sorry, Optimists!

There were lots of other kids lined up to speak. Probably 25 or so, several from each grade level in the school district. We were somewhat on home turf for me as the event was held at the church I grew up in. Methodist. (This was before my brother and I transferred over to St. Pius X, which led to my later becoming Catholic.) All of us waited in a hallway outside a very small, hot and stuffy library where each orator had his or her brief shining moment. The judges chose the best orator from each grade level and presented awards to each at the end.

I was more than a little intimidated while waiting in the hallway for my moment. I was nerdy, like everyone else there, so I had no reason to feel self-conscious. but I was probably more obsessive-compulsive than the rest and had an amazing ability to worry about every possible worst-case scenario. Here’s what was going through my head:

  • What if my notecards get out of order?
  • What if I open my mouth and nothing comes out?
  • What if I pee my pants?
  • What if my notecards get out of order?
  • What if I sweat so much that a puddle starts forming underneath me?
  • What if I pee my pants and sweat so much…..and so forth?

I had a good hour of running through these questions in my mind, visualizing each one of them happening, over and over. By the time I got to the front of the line, I was on adrenalin overload. I could have accomplished a major athletic feat, but instead I walked into a very hot little room with lots of serious-looking grown-ups who’d likely had their fill of kids giving speeches. I felt like I was free-falling.

Here’s what happened:

  • I did not get the notecards out of order, clam up or pee my pants.
  • I DID sweat a lot, have a very shaky voice, almost drop the notecards because my hands were shaking so much and talk so fast thatIgotthroughmyspeechinabout30seconds.
  • I did not win an award, nor did I deserve one.
  • My poor dad. He was there in the audience and probably wondered what the hell happened to me out in that hallway with the other kids. (He once defended my honor when I dropped a ball I should’ve caught while playing left-field with my third-grade softball team. Another parent made a critical comment in the stands and he nearly created a scene. Will write more about this another time. Go, Blue Blazers!) Mom was not there as she was stuck at home with severe agoraphobia. Afterward, Dad congratulated me and told me I did a really great job, and he was proud of me.

I am really grateful to my dad for his hopeful attitude about my future. I don’t think I gave him a very good glimpse of it that night, but he believed in me anyway. And I am happy that I don’t get nerves before speaking anymore.

To date, the Optimists remain my most difficult audience.

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Forgotten Love Letters

27 Dec

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Back in the 90s Ben and I lived in a small brick apartment building in Grandview, right behind the St. Christopher Church and Trinity School playground. It was our first off-campus home as newlyweds. We moved there after I graduated from OSU in 1991.

The building was the smallish variety, with just four units, so that we knew everyone around us–mostly because we could all hear each other through the walls. Below us was an older gentleman from Bulgaria who made exotic dishes requiring mysterious herbs in small baggies, which my cat would retrieve from his apartment and bring back to us on occasion. And next to us was an older couple in their 60s or 70s, named Agnes and Steve.

All of us shared a basement. Around the time we moved in, we were putting a bunch of our boxes down in the basement and were cleaning out the area that was “our” storage space, just beyond the laundry chutes. We found a dusty old box of letters that we’d been told were the remnants of previous tenants. I opened the box and took a look.

These were intense love letters, from WWII, written by a soldier to his girlfriend. The guy was a prolific writer and the passion of a 20-year-old who’s away from the one he loves. He missed her terribly and went through a lot of paper saying so.

There wasn’t anything sublime in the letters–mostly what you’d expect. In one letter, he mentioned resisting the temptation of a solders’ night out in the city, all for her. (The guy was earnest but not a good liar, by the way.) In another letter, he clearly described which parts of her he most missed, in graphic detail. I couldn’t help noticing that he signed his name “Steve,” and the letters were addressed to “Agnes.”

Well, this could not be a coincidence. Feeling a bit embarrassed to have rifled through my neighbors’ love letters, I closed the box back up and went upstairs to tell my husband. Sheepishly, we took the box to our neighbors, not mentioning that it “had been opened.” Interestingly, they said that the letters did not belong to them and told us to put the box in the trash.

We lived in the apartment for about two years, and since the love letter incident, we discovered more about Agnes and Steve, thanks to our thin walls. They argued a lot–loudly. Steve snored–loudly. And every few nights Steve wanted to do things that Agnes didn’t. They argued, things got quiet, and then Steve snored.

The repetition of their argument–the same one every time–was both sad and comical. It was sad because they were oblivious to how ridiculous it had become. I wondered how long they had been caught in this loop.

As a naive and newly married 23-year-old, the state of Steve and Agnes’ relationship baffled me. How could they write letters so full of life and love, then deny ever writing the letters and sink into the opposite of domestic bliss? Maybe the letters were a bittersweet reminder of things past–a life so long ago that it didn’t really belong to them anymore.

I could never find any resolution to this mystery, and after a few years we moved into another Grandview apartment where we could no longer hear Steve and Agnes. That was 20 years ago, and I’m sure that they have moved on as well–perhaps even passed on.

Steve and Agnes taught me a lesson about love. When the spark and joy of relationship fade so far into the past that you don’t care about throwing memories away, when you repeat yourself over and over again and fall deeper into the rut of the same argument, when the status quo becomes good enough, having past tense love doesn’t make a difference. I’m thankful to have learned that lesson.

Riding with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

2 Dec

I am getting excited about my annual tradition of rereading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I do every year between Christmas and New Year’s. The action unfolds in Medieval England and begins on New Year’s Eve, finishing a year and a day later.

Image Courtesy of Hurley Century Arts - http://www.cjhurley.com/artwork/gesso-green.php

My favorite translation is a relatively new one, by English poet Simon Armitage.

I am fascinated by the story (an alliterative romance, for the experts) for lots of reasons:

  • Setting – The story is set in the North West Midlands, the general area of England that my ancestors came from. It just seems right that I should be reading this poem.
  • Symbolism – The author (unidentified) interweaves sexual tension and hunting (deer, boar and fox), temptation and self-control (including losing one’s head and giving away a girdle), nature and civilization, the mores of chivalry and courtly love. What else is there to discuss?
  • Story – This poem is an adventure to read. The story stands the test of time. There’s suspense, even though the themes are mostly about human nature. The writer does keep you guessing. And I’ve found that each time I reread it I pick up on a nuance I missed in previous readings.
  • Language – For me, this is the best part. (Caution: My undergrad honors thesis was on Cajun French morphemes. I’ll admit it: I geek out on words.)  I recommend a side-by-side translation. The original was written in Middle English, enjoyable to read because if you abandon all fear of the unknown the language is surprisingly understandable. Just don’t try to decipher every word. Think of the process as an adventure! Anyone who’s learned to read in a different language knows what I mean. The Armitage translation is lovely, because he’s a poet and knows how to do justice to the rhythm, sound and meaning of each word and verse.

Do yourself a favor and give the Green Knight a careful read. Steep yourself in language, and storytelling, at its best.

For those who have interest in learning more about how to intersperse your writing with Green Knights and other such characters, I recommend checking out this  Joseph Campbell book: The Hero With a Thousand Faces. I just found this helpful review from the Fuel Your Writing folks and am planning to give it a read.

Never Enough Tufte

29 Nov

Edward Tufte is the guru of info design…I published this three years ago but unearthing from the vault for a redux.

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I highly recommend the works of Edward Tufte to anyone who (1) likes diagrams of any sort, (2) enjoys communications about data, and/or (3) gets personal satisfaction from bridging the gap between a highly technical topic and an extremely non-technical audience.

Tufte is a Yale professor emeritus probably best known among statisticians, engineers and designers. These audiences tend to appreciate diagrams, and developing a meaningful, clean and well organized visual explanation is not easy. Edward Tufte explains how using pictures to convey information is both an art and a science. His works provide case studies of well-done and poorly executed diagrams, both of which are well worth studying. It’s good for anyone to learn how best to handle these matters and how to avoid others’ mistakes. Buying Tufte’s books is recommended for those (like me) who are tactile. The paper quality and fold-out sections deliver the adult version of a pop-up book.

Writers of any sort should better get to know Tufte. Probably the biggest reason is that many writers do not have a natural affinity for data. By nature, most people either “do” words or numbers. Some juggle both well, and those sorts will lap up Tufte like a cat with a bowl of milk. Those writers who do not take well to numbers can learn how to integrate data into copy in an engaging way, by using accurate and interesting narrative descriptions and visuals that help to tell the story.

Edward Tufte is a revolutionary communicator, in a practical way. His Powerpoint essay explains why. This is a must-read for anyone as an introduction to his approach. The Gettysburg address a la Powerpoint will make you laugh. The NASA Columbia engineers’ plight when forced to grapple with the inadequacies of Powerpoint will make you cry. Tufte’s post mortem lays out how a seemingly helpful tool such as Powerpoint contributed to the Columbia disaster. He explains, blow by blow, the right way to share highly important technical information with a business audience. Powerpoint is not the tool to use. At its best, it’s a sales tool. At its worst, it squeezes important information into a hierarchical outline format that requires a very small amount of information per slide, when it’s a proven point that people in general can absorb so much more. The comparisons to Pravda are revealing. Everything that we’ve been taught about what’s “proper” to include on a given slide in terms of information volume is sorely lacking, and Tufte explains why in his Powerpoint essay.

There are larger issues beyond Powerpoint. At the heart of Tufte’s method is a lesson for every writer willing to grow in his or her chosen field. We all know that feeling when we “nail it”–when the audience reads or hears what we are writing or presenting about, and they absorb it and take it to the next level for their own purposes. We also know when we are not able to make a meaningful translation–when the information just doesn’t stick. This is a bad feeling for us and for the reader/audience, because it wastes time. Why burn time when it could be used to communicate more productively?

In our information-rich world, it’s critical for any writer to understand how best to separate the wheat from the chaff, and Edward Tufte pioneers a quality approach. Prioritizing critical information from non-critical “phluff” is what it’s all about. If you are a writer, Tufte is worth your time.

Strunked, or ‘Omit Needless Words’

10 Sep

Every year, there are two books that I re-read, at different seasons. At Christmastime, it’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (a poem, but the size of a book) because it has end of old year and start of new year themes. At back-to-school time, I re-read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. This post tells a bit about why.

I’m a bit of a language geek. I think about it a lot in my spare time. I enjoyed diagramming sentences in 8th grade, and I wrote my honors thesis for undergrad on Cajun French morphemes.

Words matter to me, and putting them together smartly, in particular in the business world, is the difference between grabbing or losing an important person’s attention. I write for a living, so for me it’s a practical matter. And it’s just plain enjoyable for me to read this tightly written book about being a better writer.

While the book includes many “how-to’s,” it is also chock-full of humor on the side.  For instance:

Rather, very, little, pretty–these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.

(First sentence to explain the rule: “Avoid the use of qualifiers.”)

The history of the book is also worth knowing. Many don’t realize that E.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web) kept the book alive “with” his Cornell professor William Strunk Jr, albeit after Strunk had passed. Professor Strunk wrote the book for his English undergraduates in the early 1910s, and White was one of them. Years later, the publisher Macmillan asked White to re-work the book for more widespread use, and White stayed true to the “little book” that Strunk created. The first edition was published in 1959, and since then there have been another four additions, each containing updates that keep it current.

The Elements of Style has become a necessary and nearby bookshelf item for all writers. Consider these words of wisdom that everyone tries to remember, without realizing their origins in the mind of Strunk (and White):

  • Omit needless words.
  • Use the active voice.
  • Use definite, specific, concrete language.
  • Nice: A shaggy, all-purpose word, to be used sparingly in formal composition.
  • Do not overwrite.
  • Write in a way that comes naturally.
  • Revise and rewrite.
  • Avoid fancy words.
  • Be clear.

I received my most recent edition from Bob Boltz (the most precise writer and honest editor I know) when working at Columbus, Ohio PR firm the Cochran Group. Bob would probably appreciate that I have threatened to give my daughter, newly a freshman at The Charles School, her very own copy of the book. She has indicated more than once that she’d rather I didn’t. If only these young kids would appreciate the wisdom buried in Strunk’s “little book!”

Here’s a closing thought from Strunk, called in E.B. White’s preface to the 1979 edition:

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 sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word should tell.

“Tell,” indeed. Every piece of writing should tell a story without “unnecessary” embellishment.

What’s the point? The best writing is created from the heart but polished by the discipline of the mind.

BlogPaws

10 Apr

Scrap riots sound like fun...c'mon!

Had an awesome time at the Blogpaws pet bloggers’ conference yesterday and today! Thanks to all who attended the Building Your Blog Strategy panel, moderated by Sue Resnicoff of Del Monte Foods | Pet Products. (My pet’s favorite: Pup-Peroni.).

I enjoyed sitting with fellow panelists Karen Nichols of Catster blog and Michele Hollow of Pet News and Views.

My portion of the panel involved:

  • Ideas and tools for creating and sharing compelling content.
  • Tips and techniques for staying disciplined, engaged and most of all, motivated!

Here are the content tips I shared:

Creating and Sharing Compelling Content

1. Do Your Homework

  • Research the topics that are of interest to you AND your target audience. Conduct a thorough search effort when you get started…and at logical check-points.
  • Ask around and look for content “holes.” Is there a topic that’s not being blogged about? Is there value you can add to the discussion from an unexplored perspective on a topic already in the blogosphere?

2. Explore the Shallows and Dive Deep

  • I will often share content on Facebook and Twitter that is of interest to me, then blog more deeply about the content. This is a good way to test initial responses to the topic and determine whether it would draw readers to your blog.
  • Setting up a series of posts about a topic also gives you the chance to touch on the high points and dive deep over time.

3. Don’t Wax Poetic

  • Posts should be no longer than 400 words. Preferably, make them closer to 250.
  • Add images, audio and video. Keep in mind the needs of visual and experiential learners. Not everyone will be drawn in by the written word.

Staying Disciplined, Engaged and Motivated

1. Discipline: Create an editorial calendar.

  • This will help you to plan your posts across the year and have a roadmap for success. Remember to set realistic goals for frequency. Start off modestly and build out to one or more posts per day, as it makes sense for your blog.
  • Don’t be constrained by the calendar. You can and should be posting more frequently on topics of current interest.

2. Engagement: Build relationships and activate your voice…enhancing your reputation.

  • Building relationships is the goal.
  • Get excited about your content. If you are passionate, your readers will be.
  • Be smart about your content and your replies to readers. Comments and replies should be dynamic extensions of your posts. Learn how-to’s from industry leaders, including their mistakes and successes.
  • Assess your reader demographics. Are they your intended target audience?
  • Attract and retain your target readers.
  • Recalibrate your calendar on a regular basis (monthly or quarterly).

3. Motivation: Don’t go it alone.

  • Bond with fellow bloggers. A support group will keep you activated.
  • Get honest reactions from your friends, family and significant other.
  • Take a break when you need to. No one will smack your hand for skipping a week when you need to take a breather. A blog vacation can rejuvenate your energy and help to grow new ideas.

Soooo sleepy.

I thought it would be appropriate to post this shot of Wylie post-conference. He got loads of new toys (more info in future posts) and was EXHAUSTED by the conference. He took networking to new levels in the pet play room while I presented. But everyone has to sleep it off when they overdo, right?

Blogamucil (aka, I do not care about SEO)

3 Jun

Growing up, my favorite grandmother (Grandma Anna) taught me about regularity. My brother and I spent summers with her, and it was a blast. She had a daily routine that started off with Tang, a cigarette, Metamucil (orange-flavored) and her favorite coffee cake made by hand from a recipe from her father’s German family. My brother and I played hide-and-seek in the big cabinets in her kitchen, a renovated stable. We ran around the big grounds of the family for whom she did light chores (the Hafts, in Reynoldsburg), climbing pine trees as high up as we could go and getting sap all over our hands. There was a huge tree that had a hollowed out trunk we loved to climb into. You could hide there for hours (well, it seemed like hours).

When we returned to her house in the evening after a long day of play, she made us meatloaf and mashed potatoes. She watched us while we ate, and she drank half a beer (Blatz, the other half of which would be finished the next night), smoked a cigarette and had some more Metamucil. Sometimes she tried to cut our bangs, which always got her into trouble with my mother. She would let us watch T.V. shows about aliens (which scared me) but would not let us watch Gunsmoke or any other program with guns. I slept in the same bed with Grandma (who snored), and my brother slept beside us in a cot.

The next day: Wake up and repeat. That was a great summer.

Blogging is like this. Get up and do your routine. Hopefully making a meaningful contribution to the blog will be part of it.

The only problem is that for me routine is not always easy to latch onto. I operate best in spurts of activity. Sometimes I am in need of Blogamucil. Now is one of those times. I write so much for work that the act of not writing is cleansing and good for me. Other times writing for non-work purposes is cathartic.

Honestly, I think I’ve spent myself on Alsop’s The 18 Immutable Laws of Corporate Reputation. It wasn’t you—it was me, Ron. You inspired me, but I ran out of steam. Rest assured, I am finishing the book but not writing more about it.

Next up: Some musings on Martin Lindstrom’s Buyology. And some info from my readings to prepare for my APR.