A pal of mine posts this song on people's Facebook pages on their birthdays. He favors the Todd Snider version, but this is my blog, tomorrow's my birthday, and I like Guy Lombardo.
When I was 41, I wrote this open letter to people in their twenties. It was about the shock of entering middle-age, which you'd think would happen gradually, but actually happens one Tuesday morning when you wake up with a wretched hangover and suddenly realize you are far too old to be ever waking up with wretched hangovers on Tuesday mornings. And you suddenly understand that if wretched Tuesday hangovers are out, a lot of other stuff is probably also out—and a bunch of serious stuff is probably going to be coming in to replace it.
Saturday I will be 47, and I can report that most of it is OK with me most days.
A soccer dad asks why I hold my 12-year-old girl out of header practice, where her teammates head dozens of balls, ostensibly in order to head more safely the two or three they'll actually have in games.
I tell him I don't want to get into the unsettled science of concussions, which is laypersons' liar's poker. I just tell him I figure the bare minimum requirement of being a parent is protecting your kid's head.
There is a pause. I fill it, by adding:
My outsize psychological influence will inevitably have mixed emotional results, because I'm full of mixed emotions myself. Neither am I going to offer her a perfect diet intellectually; she'll inevitably know more than she needs to about the aesthetics of automobiles, and less than she needs to about how they work. (She will either curse me for this, or tell funny stories like the ones I tell about my dad, and how his whole set of tools fit into an old can of Pringles potato chips.)
I can't even protect her physically. She plays sports, and she plays them aggressively, and I've always encouraged that.
But there are limits. No, there is one limit. The head.
If she blows out a knee—even loses a leg!—I know her head can take her the rest of the way in life.
Whereas, if she gets brain damage on my watch I can't very well counter, "But she's strong as an ox!"
My dad used to say his motto was, "Take care of the babies."
I try to be more realistic. I say, "Take care of their heads."
The final whistle blows, and the soccer dad seems relieved.
For 362.5 days of the year, speechwriting is one of the loneliest jobs in the corporate or political world. For two and a half days a year, everyone understands what you do, everyone appreciates how hard it is and everyone helps you find ways to do it better. While the World Conference of Professional Speechwriters Association is in session, speechwriters rule the world.
This year, those days are Sept. 26-28, at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.
What are those days like? For speechwriters, it's like they died and went to heaven. See (from a look at last year) for yourself.
And register now, because unlike with the real heaven, there's an early bird discount and seating is limited.
Producers: Paola Gadala-Maria and Jake O’Connor. Camera Operators: Austin Haitos and Paola Gadala-Maria. Editor: Evan McIntyre.
Your pre-teen wants more than just about anything to have a YouTube channel, so she can show the videos she makes in her bedroom to the waiting world. She wants to be followed, as she follows all the other kids from whose YouTube videos she learns how to put on makeup and make her hair grow faster. You've said no to this, and to requests for her to join any social networks that allow anyone but friends and family to see her profile and her posts.
It's not a hard call. But it's not an easy sell.
You have already given her at least once your lecture about artists (and writers) and the appropriate moment for them to begin their strange and fickle and psychologically dangerous relationship with The Public. At 12, she's just experimenting with techniques, and hasn't developed anything like a coherent point of view that should be consumed by—or subjected to the judgments of—sane and insane strangers in Alabama, Canada and Israel.
But telling a kid she's not developmentally ready to do the thing that she wants to do is like telling an adult she's not smart enough. You're better off trying to make her understand your position.
So here's what you do. You present her with a hypothetical situation separate from the immaculate world of the Internet. You tell her: What if you told me that on your walk home from school, you pause at a park and put on a little variety show. You sing your acapella Rihanna tunes, you dance, you do jokes and one-girl skits. It started slowly, but now lots of people are coming. All kinds of people, of all ages. You don't know who they are, or why they're coming. You assume the main draw is your general awesomeness, but you're not quite sure what it is you want to communicate to them, or what they need to hear. You're just having fun showing off and these people seem to be enjoying it.
You ask her: If you told me that was happening at the park after school, would you expect me to encourage it? Or allow it to take place even one more day?
She knows the answer, which is, she wouldn't do it in the first place.
That unsupervised show for strangers is what your personal YouTube channel would be, you conclude with the unsuccessfully concealed air of a confident defense attorney resting his case.
She begins to walk out of the room. You tell her she needs to respond first, and you lay out three options: She can agree with you, she can disagree with you, or she can not be sure but be willing to think it over.
"Disagree," she says, and goes into her bedroom.
And then comes out and gives you a goodnight kiss.
And then, on the way back to the bedroom tells you she's looking forward to a trip the two of you are taking the next day but adds, "We are not going to talk about social media."
That works for you.
"Secretary Clinton accepted some speaking gigs during the brief period she was a private citizen. The organizations that hired her wanted to hear what she had to say. To imply or infer something more is ridiculous."
So said a communication consultant on Facebook yesterday. Sorry, but I'm a savvier and wiser girl—which makes me think she should definitely release the speeches, and assume that the speeches will be mostly boring, as she has claimed.
Organizations hire speakers for many reasons other than wanting to hear what the speaker has to say.
They hire speakers to flatter their constituents. "Condoleeza Rice came to speak, just to us!"
They hire speakers to associate the speaker with their brand. "You know, Colin Powell gave a speech to their sales force."
And sometimes, the high cost of the speaker is actually one of the selling points, especially when organizations hire speakers to win the appreciation of their constituents: "We care about you so much, we hired Hillary Clinton to speak, and you can just imagine what that cost!"
Do organizations hire speakers to deliver specific messages to their constituents? Sure. Sometimes they know the speaker will deliver messages their constituents want to hear. Less frequently, they figure the speaker will deliver uncomfortable messages they want their constituents to hear. Always, they expect the speaker to deliver a message that agrees with the thrust of the organization. Not lies, not spin, not promises—just messages that fit with the organization's interests: A big company put on a lot of conferences a dozen years ago and paid Tom Friedman to speak, as Friedman's "world is flat" message melded with the company's vision for global commerce.
Do I respect Friedman a little less for taking dough to speak at events staged by a big global corporation? I guess I do. Do I believe he said anything at those events that utterly contradicted his actual philosophy? No. The crime, if there was one, was in the showing up and lending moral legitimacy to the company's business strategy.
I think most people who know a lot about paid speaking gigs are not expecting a lot of revelatory pandering to Wall Street audiences if Hillary Clinton releases her speech transcripts. Unless Clinton, surrounded by a bunch of Wall Street types and eager to please, told them all that the 2008 economic collapse was actually the fault of the selfish, bovine middle class, I think she's probably right: These speeches are going to be slight variations on the boringly balanced themes she's been pushing forward all these years.
I could be wrong. And because of that, Clinton should probably release the transcripts of the speeches. And get on with things.
Last week I sent a query to a PR agency looking to interview someone about a study they'd done.
A couple days later, the PR agency's PR guy called me. He was still reading my query, which contained a link to this piece, telling my readers about the study and its somewhat preposterous promise to bring a "big data" approach to help leaders make better speeches. (The agency had “analyzed more than 100,000 presentations from corporate executives, politicians and keynote speakers," the study claimed.)
How could he help me? the PR guy wanted to know.
Um, as I explained in my email, I wanted to interview someone there. About the study. I named a specific agency executive who would be right for my audience.
He said he'd talk to the agency's bosses to see if they were interested in our possibly "working together" on this project.
No, not working together, I specified. I'm a journalist and my audience of professional speechwriters is particularly interested in this study. So I want to write about it, or alternatively, publish something the agency wanted to write about it.
"Oh, I think I see—you're trying to drive traffic to your site?"
Well, yes: I guess as a journalist, I'm always trying to drive traffic to my site. That's the traffic I presumed the agency was trying to get access to by doing a study and publicizing it. No?
But that old-school quid pro quo wasn't enough for this guy.
He wanted to be on more equal moral terrain than consultant vs. trade journalist. And to achieve this leveling, he didn't seem to want his agency's status elevated to think-tank status; rather, he seemed to want me to acknowledge that I had low motives too.
Beginning to feel like a time traveler on roofies, I indicated that, Yeah: I have an audience full of people who might be potential clients for the agency, if the agency's research seems valid and useful to them. (Did a PR guy for a PR agency that does PR consulting for PR people not understand the concept of publicity?)
The guy said he didn't make the decisions around there and his bosses are pretty busy—"is there a deadline or anything like that?"—but he'd run my query by them and let me know if they were interested—
"I know," I said. "In working together."
I'll let you know if the guy gets back to me. So far, nothing.
This isn't the first time I've been shocked by PR people not seeming even to understand the ostensible role of a journalist in an industry or a society. Writing Boots readers will remember that a couple years ago I covered a PR trade association critically and journalistically during a period of crisis. Even though I was the only journalist writing reporting regularly on the issue, the association brass and board repeatedly told me that what I should really be doing, if I disagreed with the course the association was taking, was joining up and volunteering to help the group out. I repeatedly explained that my role as a journalist—detailing its problems to its otherwise unseeing membership, which came to my website in hordes—was its own contribution in making the association better. They—professional PR people—seemed honestly bewildered by the notion.
Journalists and PR people have long been sometime friends and sometime rivals. But they haven't been mystified by one another the way we seem to be right now.
This state of affairs cannot be good.
Putting the finishing touches on some conference marketing copy, I'll change a reference to "Pre-Con Workshops" to "Pre-Conference Workshops." Why? First off, you don't want "Con" to appear anywhere in marketing material, just as you don't want "Death" to appear on hospital walls. But more importantly, "Pre-Con" is conference-goon talk, and it belongs strictly in back room.
Do you look forward, when you see it on a cocktail party invitation, to eating a lot of "heavy hors d'eauvres"? No. That's caterer talk that never should have gotten out of the kitchen, but did.
Similarly, unless you're a CBS shareholder, how viscerally exciting did you find it to learn last week that Stephen Colbert's new executive producer Chris Licht is looking forward to "the chance to work with Stephen and help build a valuable late night franchise"?
Build a valuable franchise? Is he taking over a comedy show, or the Taco Bell out on Old Route Eight?
You have to doubt the showbiz instincts of a guy who talks like that.
Or at least the ability of the PR person who wrote the quote, to know the difference between the firm's inside voice and its outside voice. Which, if you're a PR pro, is kind of why they pay you.