It came to me just like that.
My mother-in-law, in her cups or under some other spell, suggested that we plan a family vacation to Branson, Missouri.
In this social emergency, I stammered that Branson is on, like, the opposite of my bucket list. Branson, I babbled, is on my "fuck-it list"—places I've never seen and things I've never done that, if I have any choice in the matter, I never will.
I've been an outrageously lucky fellow. I've been to Australia, China, England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Greece, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, France, Belgium, Canada and Mexico. I've ridden 20,000 miles on a motorcycle and skydived from 10,000 feet. I've driven an old truck nonstop--because it didn't have working brakes--from Albuquerque to Chicago. I've climbed a jungle mountain, I've hiked across a Texas desert, I've sailed across the North Atlantic, I've run from the West Side to the South Side of Chicago. There's a lot I've done, and not much I wouldn't do.
However: Bungee jumping. That's on my fuck-it list, because it looks so dumb. Wearing culottes makes your legs look dorky and riding a Segway scooter makes you look like a circumcised penis on the move. And the only thing that makes you look worse than bungee jumping would be doing so while strapped to a Segway while wearing culottes.
I'm sure I'm wrong to say this, but India is on my fuck-it list. It's not the heat, because I very much want to go to Africa. Maybe it's the skinny cows and the corpses in the holy Ganges River and whatnot. And all that fucking curry. The place just looks yucky to me. But I've been talked out of fuck-it list items before. (See skydiving, above.)
What else should I put on my fuck-it list? Before I die, I don't need to see the Mall of America, I don't need to call in to the Rush Limbaugh show, I don't need to read any books by Tony Robbins.
And I sure don't need to make a banal and miserly "bucket list" as a coward's phony justification to do what I want to do in my life.
Writing Boots regular Randall Damon calls the Friday Happy Hour Video "Phone It In Friday." So I know what I'll get for posting a video on Wednesday. But ... apropos of yesterday's yak on the strategy of "strategy." Hat tip to another Writing Bootista, Amy Gooen, for finding this. So Randall can take it up with her.
Ragan Communications is holding a "Strategic Communications and Storytelling Summit," this fall in Dallas. I'm sure it's going to be a great event; Ragan puts them on reliably. But I'm not nuts about that title.
First, there's "Summit." I've been to lots of communication conferences. None were held at Yalta, and at no time did we discuss nuclear disarmament treaties. We bitched about our bosses, and drank liquor.
But it's the rest of the title that itches my anus. Does it mean half the sessions will be on strategic communications, and the other half on storytelling? Or will half the sessions be on strategic communications and the other half on strategic storytelling? Or will all the sessions will be on communications and storytelling that are strategic?
It doesn't matter, of course, because every story ever told, and every communication ever attempted, could be described as strategic. Via stories and other means, just about all communication is done for a reason: in order to impress girls, bamboozle prime ministers, fend off accusations, order a beer, or hug or punch a person without having to get up.
One of the worst things that can be said about a person is—and I should know, because I'm sure it's been rightly said of me—"He just likes to hear himself talk." ("Someone is boring me," said Dylan Thomas one night, in his cups and rambling, at the White Horse Tavern. "I think it's me.")
Talking just to talk is a lesser strategy, but a strategy nevertheless. Another lesser purpose for storytelling is merely to pass the time. But we don't really think anybody's doing that in corporate communications, do we?
Then why do we so endlessly protest that our communication, and our communication conferences, are "strategic"? As opposed to whose?
I think what Ragan is trying to promise—and what I try to promise, with many of my own marketing promotions—and really, what all professional communicators are trying to promise when they claim their communications are "strategic"—is this: What we do is worth the money you spend.
If we wanted to be just slightly more straight-up about this, we'd replace "strategic" with more specific words, like, "worthwhile," "disciplined," "effective," "thoughtful" and "smart."
So we'd all be striving to make our communications not more strategic, exactly. Maybe just more worthy of the expense and the time they consume, and the risks they impose. And where would we learn how to do it? Of course, at the "Gathering for Worthwhile Communications and Thoughtful Storytelling."
Doesn't that sound like a more convivial and candid event? But your boss wouldn't send you, because it sounds like too much fun.
One day last week I went for a long run, from Chicago's West Side to the South Side. It was hot, and after a few miles I felt dehydrated. So I stopped at a gas station and bought a bottle of water. I stood in line, sweating, behind a morbidly obese woman with elephantine ankles that made it difficult for her to walk, who was taking lots of time choosing between various flavor varieties of large sacks of Hot Takis.
That woman, in case the Trump story has already mesmerized you into such a stupor that I have to spell it out for you, is you.
The smarm ...
... and the snark.
"Apparently the PR business, in which I have participated since 1970, has changed," veteran PR man and Writing Boots regular Brian Kilgore wrote yesterday on Facebook.
He quotes PR blogger David Gallagher, who paraphrases Lynne Anne Davis, president of the Cannes PR Jury: "New PR is now demonstrating its full channel agnostic power for building trust with authenticity and driving meaningful change in minds, societies and lives."
"Balderdash," Kilgore harrumphs. I don't suppose Kilgore would be any more moved by Davis's Deep Thoughts about "the power of true."
The exchange reminds me of my long gone mentor Larry Ragan, who once wrote a headline I remember more than two decades later. The head appeared over Larry's mocking condemnation of a prissy association-sponsored study that attempted to define "Excellence in Public Relations" as necessarily involving "two-way reciprocal communication," or some such highfalutin jive.
In his piece, Larry cited a contemporary PR campaign that was resulting in a windfall for a women's clothing company.
The headline, hammered out on Larry's manual Royal typewriter and gleefully retyped into the Aldus Pagemaker 5.0 newsletter template by yours truly:
"Does selling scads of brassieres constitute 'excellent' public relations?"
Now that, my friends, is the power of true.
A small-town newspaper reporter called a few weeks ago, looking for quotes on some cockamamie story her editor dreamed up "tied to the 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta." (Yes, because all the residents of Grand Junction, Colo. turn to you for a perspective on the Magna Carta.)
The reporter asked me and a number of other speechwriting people, "Can a person set out to write 'enduring words,' or do words—speeches, plays, poems, essays, novels, etc.—simply endure because they represent a particular moment in time/history or because they're of a particular beauty?"
I gave her an answer that I've found fits most basic questions about what makes good speeches: I told her that the way to make an impact is to deliver a speech that only you can deliver to a particular group of people at a particular moment in history. "Do that, and you have a chance—a one in a million chance!—to be remembered by history," I told her. "But if you do that, you have a hundred percent chance of being appreciated by the audience in front of you."
I've been using that line for long enough that it's making my mouth dry. I've got a new idea that amplifies the old one. It hit me as I was beginning to put together a new version of my Speechwriting Jam Session, a changeable, thematic highlight reel of historical and contemporary speeches that I deliver to speechwriting audiences around the world. This one's kind of a Best of the Best, for the Professional Speechwriting Association's first Speechwriting School (Oct. 6 in Washington, D.C.).
I'm looking back over all the various Jams I've done over the last five years to build a collection that will inspire the Speechwriting School pupils to use their new rhetorical skills to do important work. What struck me was how many of my recent selections speeches centered on a single issue.
And these speeches, as I reviewed them, refined and enlarged my philosophy of what makes speeches memorable.
Speeches are great when a speaker expresses a hard-earned point of view ...
... on a broad issue (like human rights, as opposed to a narrow one, like this blog post) that's coming to a head ...
... on which the speaker feels utterly sure, in the face of strong and sincere opposition from others ...
... so utterly sure, in fact, that the speaker can bring more than blunt moral outrage to the lectern, but can deliver warmth and humor, too.
Like all great speeches, these are compelling because they were delivered by speakers who came by their ideas honestly, tackling a big topic with bedrock conviction, and doing so with dignity and style.
That's what I should have told that Grand Junction scribe. And that's what I'm going to say at Speechwriting School, unless you tell me I'm all wet—or show me something I've missed.
The week before the first moon landing on this day in the summer of 1969, my dad, then creative director for the Detroit ad agency Campbell-Ewald, wrote an ad for a client, Apollo-contractor North American Rockwell, that wound up being read into the Congressional Record after the mission succeeded.
“It isn’t very often that an ad is so well written that it strikes a responsive note in the hearts and minds of many people,” wrote Campbell-Ewald’s president Hugh Redhead in a memo dated July 19, 1969. “Tom Murray, our creative director, has written one of those ads. We should all be proud of him.”
Another advertising exec called it “one of the most fantastic, pure copy masterpieces I have ever read.” A housewife said the ad “made me feel I was participating in the Flight to the Moon.” And former president Lyndon Johnson wrote to say, “My pride in our nation’s space program and in all the dedicated people that make it possible is boundless. I was grateful to read those fine words about them.”
The “moon ad,” as Dad always called it, would be the pinnacle of his career. I was 11 weeks old when it was published. Dad was my age: 46.
What, I wonder, will wind up being the pinnacle of ours?
People arguing about politics with the very same level of puffy gravitas they would bring if the debate they were having was on the Senate floor or in the Supreme Court. "For the record" this, and "mark my words" that.
And then, at the very height of the all-important argument with the future of the free world in the balance, send a quick note—"hey, I just got a client call, gotta go"—and disappear, not to be heard from until the next time they're Facebooking while bored and lonely.
At least when my 11-year-old is screwing off and avoiding her chores while fantasizing that she's someone else, she calls it "playing."