And of course, I'm flattered.
And of course, I'm flattered.
A marketing agency is advertising a session at SXSW:
"How to make data your b*tch."
"Pardon our language," the description begins, "but even sophisticated marketing executives understand the value of getting people’s attention. They also understand the value of data to form new insights and discoveries ...."
Actually, the best way to get people's attention is by introducing them to a new idea. Short of that—and short of that, we so often are—here's a rule of thumb for marketers who would use obscenities in headlines: Have the stones to spell the motherfuckers out.
Frank told me the story on the last night of the trip. Actually he sort of divulged it, kind of coughed it up involuntarily.
Frank’s older brother, who he idolized and adored and modeled himself after—and who had loved him and watched out for him all growing up, taking the place of a father who wasn’t there—Frank’s older brother was killed in a car accident when Frank was about 13.
Forty-five hours and 10,000 stories from this guy, and I was just hearing now about what must have been the single most formative moment of Frank’s life?
And I was hearing it, told in a quiet, honest, true way, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the ocean, I could see Frank’s face in the faint glow of the electronic compass. Even behind his mustache, it was the face of a 13-year-old boy.
After a silence, I tried to express that I understood that Frank’s brother’s death must have been devastating. In fact, I was already beginning to understand that such a death might be so catastrophic and soul-tearing as to cause a human being to turn into a 24-hour broadcasting radio station with a tall tower and a razor-wire fence around it.
“I can’t imagine how crushing that must have been,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said quietly. “It was real hard on my mom.”
And with that story—story number 10,001—Frank was utterly and forever transformed in my mind—from an example of something, from a type of something, from something to be shown to people—he was transformed from a hologram, into a human being.
And when a person is transformed in that way, you don’t have to like him, of course—another sailing trip with Frank will be on strict conditions—but you do have respect him, acknowledge him as a fellow traveler, and in a way, love him.
And ultimately, that’s what we want our audiences to feel about their leaders, right?
The moral of stories: A person can tell stories all night long. But if the stories are going to do any good at all, they’ve got to deliver the bomb.
All we talk about in communication circles these days is storytelling—or, as the storytelling consultants preciously put it, "the power of story."
I'm afraid that all we're going to do with these stories is to turn our companies, and the people who lead them, into the kinds of gaffers who populate American Legion halls, dusty taverns and boat docks.
Let me tell you a story about storytelling: how it works, and how it doesn't.
A few years ago I had the wonderful good fortune of helping my brother-in-law sail his sailboat across a fat stretch of the Atlantic Ocean, from Baltimore to the Virgin Islands. I also had the disastrous bad fortune of having as my night watch mate a guy who we’ll call Frank, just in case. But really, the guy is so deeply oblivious to the world around him that there is absolutely no chance he will ever hear of my telling this story.
A little background: On a long-distance trip, you 0bviously sail through the nights too … and someone on the boat needs to keep watch at all times. So the captain assigns shifts, and everyone usually gets a partner, because it’s easier to stay awake in the pitching blackness when you have someone else to talk to.
We had only four people on this trip, and one was my brother-in-law’s daughter. She couldn’t stand Frank, and so lobbied to be her dad’s watch-mate, claiming with a minx-like smile that she wanted “quality time with my dad.”
So I got Frank, every night. Every night, from midnight to five, just me and Frank. To say Frank was a difficult watch mate is to fail to say he was a challenge to my philosophical understanding of the meaning and purpose of human interaction.
Frank was a radio station that never went off the air and a radio that couldn’t be turned down. He unspooled uninterrupted and uniformly empty yarns about his career as a fireman and his semi-retirement as a professional sailor; about his girlfriend in Mexico and his wife in California; about himself, himself, himself.
Never once did Frank express any curiosity about me or ask any question at all beyond those phony kinds of queries designed to set up another yarn. “Have you ever found yourself at the edge of a raging forest fire with only a shovel in one hand and a pickaxe in the other? No? Well let me tell you …”
Every night at midnight I had to rise from my bunk and step up into the dark, chilly cockpit for five more hours, all by myself, with Frank’s narcissism, his shallowness, his uneducated smugness, his phony bravado, his questionable morality and his sheer boringness!
It wasn’t that Frank was painful to deal with. It was that he was an affront to everything my dear departed parents had told me to value in human beings: curiosity, humor, depth, candor. It was as if my dead and divorced parents in heaven had set aside their differences for long enough to get together and search the world for the one perfect asshole. They had found Frank, and arranged for me to share night duty with him just as a test of fealty to them! There were moments that I felt that if I didn’t throw Frank overboard or jump into the middle of the ocean myself, I was being disloyal to my parents’ memory.
For nine days and nine nights, he must have told me 10,000 stories, all of which added up to exactly nothing. They were so much patter, designed to fill dead air with words that made their speaker appear the way he hoped his audience would see him: calm and knowing and capable, humble and brave and wise.
Of those 10,000 stories, I can’t remember a single one. Those nights I spent with Frank—those 45 hours in the windy black—I remember those nights as one night, a waking coma from which I was lucky to emerge with most of my faculties.
And yet, in a magazine article that I wrote about the trip, I described Frank as “loquacious.”
I wrote: “Night watches put a premium on a skill that’s rare in this day and age: a person’s ability to make a short story long. Frank is the Michael Jordan of that skill.”
Now, how did I come to like Frank well enough to be able to write about him graciously—and even remember him fondly? Not gradually, but all of a sudden—with one story. It wasn't much of a story. It was probably the shortest story he told the whole trip. But the story explained everything.
What was it?
Ah, life is long. What's the rush?
I'll tell you tomorrow.
I have an imagination sufficient to believe that I look young and dashing on my Triumph. It is a far lesser leap of mind to simply pretend that I am not wearing a helmet, and that my hair is blowing in the wind.
A blogger shows his readers respect by sticking, mostly, to the subject at hand. One doesn't want to read, on sailing blog, about the blogger having won her fantasy football league. If readers begin to sense that a blog is becoming a place to clean the blogger's mental attic, they'll say to themselves: Well hell, I have my own cluttered mental attic, thank you very much. And though they won't start their own blog, they'll protest by stopping reading yours.
But by God, I've got something in my attic that I've gotta get out, and since I have written 1,828 previous posts, almost all of which I can say have something to do with communication—because what doesn't?—I give you without apology or a even a faint attempt at claiming its relevance, professional golfer Tom Kite, demonstrating his workout routine, in 1981.
I think it would be good to have one day of the year when everyone—this means you—just seriously shuts the fuck up.
No pouring buckets of water on your head and challenging other assholes to pour buckets of water on their heads in the next 24 hours.
No self-important complaints about a company that screwed you over.
No stories on Huffington Post about Isis, right next to a story about an actress showing "sideboob."
No hot-faced conjecture about what did or didn't happen on a street in a town you never heard of two weeks ago (let alone in the minds of two people you've never met).
None of that shit.
You go to Facebook, and it's just white space.
You go to The New York Times, and the headline is, SHUTTING THE FUCK UP ... and there's no story to click through to.
You turn on CNN, and Wolf Blitzer is just sitting at his desk in the Situation Room, thinking.
And you realize you might as well spend the day shutting the fuck up, since everyone else is.
And so you do.
You shut the fuck up.
Just for one day.
Just to see how it feels.
When? How about tomorrow?
Yeah, I didn't think so.
True story, names withheld.
A young, dashing young professional soccer hopeful destroys his knee at the cusp of a professional tryout.
He still wants to make his life in soccer, but he's penniless. He works as shirtless bartender in gay bar to raise money to start youth soccer club in a nice part of town that has none.
He starts the club, teams up with a neighborhood booster to build up club, which charges the relatively well-heeled parents $2,000 a year.
The club grows, eventually needing to raise more funds and build broad support for ambitious international soccer tournament and other big plans, and suddenly—like magic it appears!—a new tagline, on every piece of club correspondence: "Changing the Lives of Children Through Soccer."
Hey, I understand the impulse. I run a fee-based organization too, you know. And I realize that the more altruistic you can make the organization sound, the more stuff your organization gets for free, and the more you can lean on people for volunteer help!
In fact, you really should join—or donate $100 to—the Professional Speechwriters Association: "Curing ALS Through Rhetoric."
Every other year, inside every communication association I've ever covered, the brass clips the ends off big cigars and discusses whether the association ought to start an "advocacy program." Meaning, the association will speak out on behalf of the profession, when issues or news stories arise that affect communicators, or that communicators affect.
And then everyone bursts out laughing. Yeah, right, like we're gonna stick our necks out and take a position on something, and potentially step on the toes of a dues-paying member! Hahahahahahahahaha!
Thats why I stood at my desk and cheered when Stephanie Cegielski, the vice president of public relations for the Public Relations Association of America—which is traditionally just as as marble-mouthed as its chief rival, the International Association of Business Communicators—published a violent takedown of the world's largest PR agency.
The post, which originally appeared last week at the association's blog and was re-posted this week by Ragan.com, excoriates Edelman PR's Lisa Kovitz for an error in judgement "so egregious that it stops us all in our tracks." Her target was a news-jacking blog post by Kovitz on the Edelman website "about how Robin Williams' death was a carpe diem moment for mental health professionals."
I'll leave it to you, if you're interested, to read Cegielski's well-written post (as well as some strong criticism of it) at PRSA's blog.
I think Cegielski is dead-ass right in this case, and I think all the criticism of her is craven. But that doesn't matter. What matters is this precedent-setting moment, whereby the head of PR at a PR association—and maybe it's easier for the head of PR than for the actual head of the assocatiation—said something straight and strong and honest and timely, in criticism of a PR agency 70 of whose employees are members of the association.
And the world didn't evaporate. And Edleman issued a mealy-mouthed apology "to anyone offended by this post." And I hope PRSA members young and old observed with raised eyebrows: Hey, it appears our profession is legitimate enough and confident enough for the official association's brass itself not just to participate in but to launch a public ethics debate, by calling out a member it thinks is out of line.
And the next time some knowing volunteer muckety-mucks group-agree that "advocacy" can't possibly, couldn't prudently, better not be and never has been done by an association of professional communicators, I hope somebody says, "Hold on a cotton-pickin' minute. What about Stephanie Cegielski?"
Last Monday afternoon when I heard about Robin Williams, I had been thinking about suicide all day, because a member of a social group I've been involved in had taken her life over the weekend.
Her friends' reactions were all over Facebook. And then with the Williams news, the two became intermingled; in my Facebook feed, they were equal Hindenburgs.
The outbursts of anger and accusations of cowardice were rare but present in both deaths. Of course such reactions are stupid. But if we're not going to condemn people for committing suicide, we probably shouldn't judge the people they shock, for crying out in pain.
The difference in people's reactions to the deaths of Williams and the death of this anonymous woman had to do with an assessment of output. Everyone wished this woman hadn't died, because at 40, she had so much more to give. (The last words of that sentence leave out, to us.)
With Williams, there was this sense, as we looked back at all those movies and TV shows and talk show appearances and sweaty, screeching comedy clips, that, since arriving from Ork, Mork had done his bit. And done it and done it and done it. He had done more than he was asked. So much more to give? We shrugged, and said, "Probably not."
The overall instinct was to give him the benefit of the doubt. To thank him for what he gave us, rather than berate him for not giving us more or implore him in arrears, Why didn't you give us a chance to rescue you?
Partly, that's the difference between a celebrity death and a friend's death. When a celebrity commits suicide, we can talk it over rationally with our friends. When a friend commits suicide, all our friends are crazy.
The general reaction to Williams' death—bless him, look how much he did give us—should be our general attitude, I think, toward all of our friends and all of our family, dead and living and in between.
And the reaction to the young woman's death—why didn't she do this, why didn't she do that, there is so much more she might have done—is an apparently natural but terribly foolish thought that we should try to banish from our hearts. And we will, just as soon as the drops of pain begin to subside and the wisdom starts to come.