After the "Murmuration" family gathering two weeks ago, I am only now replentishing the energy I spent, as I inelegantly put it to a sister today, "loving and being loved by that many motherfuckers all at once."
But love isn't the main reason we spend time with our family, I don't think. And it's not the reason the reunion was so tiring.
What is family for?
I think there are two essential, simultaneously true facts of each of our lives: 1. We are changing all the time. 2. We're pretty much the same goofball that we were in the third grade.
The first fact is essential day to day, as it gives us reason to hope, direction to strive, motivation to continue to live. As my dad used to say, "Some people have 50 years of experience. Other people have one year's experience, 50 times." We want 50 years of experience, so we expose ourselves to new people, consider new ideas, look for new work to do—and we believe all these things are making us bigger and better and stronger and wiser.
But all that is some scary shit. It's space exploration. Often we expose ourselves to combinations of people and ideas and work that confuse us and make us feel desperately inadequate, alone and disconnected. Which is why we gather occasionally with our fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters, who will ask what's new in your world, will listen closely for exactly five minutes, express sincere enthusiasm for the revolutionary developments, and then spend the rest of Thanksgiving weekend exchanging old stories about who you really are, and always were.
This is what families do. And now that we don't live in an age when we need our family members to bring in the harvest, this "leveling," as the sociologists call it, may be a family's central function. But the adjustment from Murray on the Make to "Dado Potato" is also hard psychological labor, even—as during the Murmuration—in the best of circumstances.
When people dread seeing their families, it usually means they're not willing or able at the moment to acknowledge one of the two essential facts of their life: The fact that they are largely what they always were, and always will be.
And when people spend all their time with their families, it means they're so fearful of outer space—or unsuccessful astronauts—that they'll settle for having one year's experience 50 times, and reminding everybody else they're not such hot stuff either.
There are terrible families, of course. And all families collections of variously crazy people who are at their craziest when they're together.
But we should ask ourselves: Is our family dysfunctional? Or is it merely functional, but performing a function we don't appreciate.
A speechwriting blogger wrote a scathing post awhile back about President Obama's speech to Planned Parenthood. Except, the post wasn't about the speech. It was about the president's position on abortion, which she doesn't agree with.
"As a Catholic Christian," she wrote, "I have hope … the scourge of abortion will one day be no more."
If we wanted to read a Catholic blog, we'd read one. And if we did, I bet we wouldn't find a detailed analysis of a Ben Bernanke speech.
Similarly, we read your blog only because it is about speechwriting. Don't kid yourself.
Sure, you have the "right" to write about whatever you damn well please. You also have the right to wail on a variety of subjects from a street corner. If you want regular readers, you must accept that we grant you your rights and permissions, and if you betray us by gassing on about your political and moral views without even apologizing for the digression, we will feel you violated our agreement, and we'll revoke our readership.
Casually, and almost without deciding to.
People fear public speaking more than death. (Except, no suicide note ever read, "I couldn't face the keynote.")
If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. (I sincerely hope to meet the original utterer of this in hell.)
And apparently we have a twit named Dr. Rodger Duncan to blame for this stubborn case of banal warts: "No one on his deathbead ever said, 'I wish I'd spent more time at the office.'"
No, Doc. But a lot of people do wish on their deathbed they had achieved something more meaningful with their lives, which they might have done if they weren't working watching the clock and working for the weekend all the time.
I'd say it's about time you get back to the office and write something new.
PR legend Jack Felton died Saturday at 84. You know what I remember about Felton? Exactly everything he wanted me to take away from our only meeting.
He had a glass of water at the lectern and a piece of litmus paper in his hand.
He dipped the litmus paper into the glass, and as he pulled it out, he said—and these were his exact words—"Communication is the litmus test of management's decision-making."
Meaning that, to the extent you have a hard time communicating it, it's probably a bad decision. And if it's easy to get across, it's probably a good decision. So communicators, and management, should use the attempt to conceive the communication of a new policy as a way to evaluate the policy and, if needed, modify it or scrap it altogether.
I accepted that, then and there, as a fundamental truth about our work.
Felton also remarked on parenthetically on the litmus paper gimmick, saying that connecting messages to visual things helped people remember them.
Yeah, I guess so.
You know when that meeting took place? Twenty one years ago. It was put on by an organization I don't remember, it was held at some hotel reception to which my 23-year-old ass was sent for reasons long lost to me now.
Aside from trying to pretend I was enjoying my first glass of scotch, I remember only what Jack Felton wanted me to remember—and I remember it as warmly as I remember it well.
Thanks, Jack. We'll take it from here.
A month and a half ago, I asked here whether anybody really cared about all the change that's happening at the International Association of Business Communicators, and I urged people to participate in a Ragan Communications survey that sought to answer that question.
Well, the results are in. They're varied, and compellingly so. IABC members have strong, mixed feelings about their associaton (and also about Ragan, which is characteristically brave about sharing the criticism it received).
Me? At this point, I respect the variety of informed opinion, and I'm content to wait until the International Conference in New York in late June. There, I hope to interview IABC executive director Chris Sorek, as well as outgoing chairman Kerby Meyers and incoming chair Robin McCasland to see where they think the association is and where it's headed.
Unless something unforeseen happens between now and then, my next IABC report will come that last week of June.
Meanwhile, thanks to Ragan and its aptly named reporter Russell Working for taking on the IABC coverage. Their coverage of these issues makes people pay more attention. And pay more attention to the fortunes of the trade association that is the soul of corporate communications, people should.
I once asked my retired adman dad if he ever felt bad about making good ads for bad products, and he trotted out the old saw that nothing kills a bad product like good advertising, because the advertising exposes the product to the harsh light of day.
But I pressed him, asking if he ever felt weird about making warm creative for cold corporations, smart ads for dumb clients or noble messages for morally bankrupt executives.
Even in the privacy of his den, he leaned forward and whispered.
“Sometimes,” he confessed, “we hoped our stuff might make them a little better.”
Virtuous communication shaming a client into changing its ways, or inspiring a client to live up to a higher standard: It’s the communicator’s secret hope.
But has it ever actually happened?
I wonder, and I don’t want to know.