Writing: The Raw and the Cooked

We all hear about how to improve our diets by eating unprocessed, “cleaner,” whole foods. Similarly, allowing ourselves to write “raw,” to release our fresh, unprocessed voices onto the page, can bring a boost of energy and a new sense of authenticity to our work.

For years you’ve been told how to write correctly, professionally. For years you’ve been learning to tone it down, polish it up, censor your thoughts. The more you try to write the way (you think) other people want you to write, the less your true voice comes through. Learning how to write raw is a process of breaking through the imagined voices, and learning fresh ways to say what you mean.

nothingtowritingWhen we write raw, we block out all those voices, filter the impurities, so that the only voice guiding us down the page is our own. We don’t need to know where we’re going to end up. We don’t have to know, before we uncap the pen or switch on the laptop, whether we are going to write a poem or a sonnet or an epic, or whether our paragraph is going to be the lead or the conclusion, or a vision in one of our character’s dreams.

We ignore the rules. We pay no mind to punctuation, spelling, the pursuit of the perfect phrase. We fly. We scream. Your short stories, essays, novels soar because they are founded upon passion and intuition and built with reality and truth. And this goes for any communications, really. Your final draft might not be dripping blood, but you’ll start from a place of power. Harness it, don’t shut it down before you even begin.

Writing raw is transcribing pure feeling. A passage sears a nerve when it describes an experience as it really happened. An essay moves when you can feel the author’s adrenaline in your own veins, because the moment was described with language that rebels against the reader’s sense of what they are going to see on the page next.

To write raw, we must think raw. To break the rules on the page we need to challenge the way we’ve been trained to think. And that starts with giving yourself permission.

Like Dorothy, we sometimes need a Good Witch to point out the obvious: We have all the tools we need to write in color. Emeralds, rubies, yellow brick roads, passionate memories, heartrending stories, joy and bliss and devastation are woven into our expository souls, but after years of dimming our own rainbows we start to see in black and white.

Once we feel free to break the writing rules, we can start playing with the language, rebelling against the society-safe syntax. We start writing dialogue that actually sounds like conversation: staccato, half-thoughts, half-truths and rants; discourse as full of what we don’t want to say as what makes it to the page. We integrate inflection and slang.

Overcooking – or even, I’ve read, cooking at all – can remove valuable nutrients, dilute the impact, dampen the color. If you are looking for a way to write with more punch and vibrancy, scale down your process and go for the bold.


Expanding Your Social Circle: Welcome to the Party

Recently, my friend Gary admitted to feeling a bit antisocial — a little disconnected from the electronic connections everyone else seems to be making. What he needed, I told him, was a chance to get to know the popular players. As luck would have it, my perky friend Eventbrite was throwing a party that very Friday night. So I brought him along.

“You made it! You rock!” Eventbrite cheered, her bright orange hair glowing in the doorway. “Do you have your ticket?”

I handed her the printouts I’d brought for me and for Gary, and we made our way inside. “It’s not like she needs tickets for her own cocktail party,” I told him. “But it’s her thing. She can be a little control-ly,” I said quietly. Too quietly.

“Wait, what?!” Gary shouted. The room was humming with conversation, and bustling with so much activity we didn’t know where to start. So we just started moving toward the food. Suddenly, an energetic figure leapt into our path.

“Hey! Good to see you! I thought maybe you wouldn’t make it considering the big traffic jam on Route 84. And there was some police action on Hamilton Street. With the street fair and the movie premiere it’s a miracle you got here before the end of Beaujolais nouveau season. They just talked about that on the Today show!”

Gary and I looked up at the towering, nervously intense figure. “Gary, I’d like you to meet Twitter. He likes to keep up with the latest goings-on. If there’s anything you need to know right away, check him out.”

“Great to meet you,” Gary shook his hand. “I’ll definitely look you up, so to speak.”

“OK, cool,” Twitter chirped, his eyes darting. “Whatever you need. I’ll find it for you.” Then he leaned into us. “Don’t forget the hashtag,” he said in a hushed tone.

“Hmm… I thought I smelled something coming from the garage on the way in,” Gary commented. “The music was pretty loud in there.”

“Oh, that must have been Myspace. No, hashTAGS are something different. I’ll explain later,” I said. #novice

We made our way deeper into the party, finding ourselves drawn to an exquisite collection of art gallery-worthy desserts. We must have been drooling as a voice startled us out of our honey-glazed stares.

“These are sweet pecan and walnut praline candies, covered in chocolate. Couldn’t you just DIE?”

They were already in my mouth, so I chewed my hello. “Oh… Mife to fee you, Pinterest,” I mumbled through a mouthful of sweet pecan and walnut praline candies, covered in chocolate. “Thif ith Gary. Gary… Gary?” He was completely entranced by the strawberry angel food-cake skewers.

As usual, Pinterest was impeccably dressed, always sporting the latest cutting-edge fashions. “Well, it as nice to meet you, Gary. And remember… don’t let anyone ever dull your sparkle!” Pinterest said, taking a sip from her lavish s’mores martini and exiting with a wink. Gary and I picked up two bubbly cucumber spritzers from a tray of Picasa-perfect beverages and continued around the room.

“Well, there certainly are some colorful personalities here tonight,” said my friend, taking in the scene. “Except for that guy over there, he’s actually looking a little yellow.”

“Oh, Instagram? Yeah. I think it’s the smoking.”

“And who’s this guy in the suit? He’s coming this way.”

“Oh, that’s LinkedIn. Good guy but don’t ask him what he does for a living. The last time I chatted with him he pretty much recited his entire resume.”

LinkedIn made his way toward us, passing out business cards along the way. “Hey! What’s the latest with you!” he said, shaking our hands assertively while maintaining just the right duration of eye contact.

“Link… this is my good friend Gary. Thought I’d introduce him around tonight. He’s heard a lot about you guys, but I wanted him to get to know you better.”

“Gary! Great to meet you. What line of work are you in? I’m in sales. Vice President of my division. Big on conceptualizing and leveraging my critical thinking and global strategic expertise in a highly matrixed environment. I’ve championed several innovative initiatives throughout the last 38 quarters. Very fulfilling. I’m sure I know people where you work. You look familiar, actually. Did you ever work with my colleague Mary’s brother’s cousin? I feel like we met at a thing once. Here’s my card.”

“Wow, um, ok, thanks, Link,” Gary answered. “As a matter of fact I…”

Link threw an arm around Gary’s shoulder and pulled him closer. “By the way, please let me know if you have any openings where you work. I actually HAAAAAAAATE my job. PLEEEESE. I’m gonna freaking lose it any day now. Thanks, man.” And with that, Link headed toward the food, where Pinterest was putting the finishing touches on a spectacular Bacon-anza.

“Haha, awesome. I just got that on video!” YouTube was apparently just a couple feet away. “Sweet.”

“OMG, people!” Twitter was in the center of the room, his voice booming. “Lindsay Lohan was in ANOTHER run-in with the cops.”

“So this is what I’ve been missing?” said my friend. “Seems like a lot of commotion, yet no one’s really listening — more like talking AT each other. Except for that woman over there. What is she, mumbling to herself?”

“Oh, right, I know her. That’s WordPress. She’s actually a brilliant woman — a bit of a loner though. When she gets on a roll she’s very entertaining. But yeah, it’s kind of a free for all in here. You have to admit it’s a lively group. There’s never a dull moment!”

As if on cue, I suddenly felt a decidedly sharp nudge under my rib cage that startled me silly and bathed Gary in what was left of my cucumber spritzer.

“Haha. POKE!” chortled Facebook. “Who’s your damp friend here? Do you “Like” the party?”

“Facebook! Seriously! Gary, I’m so sorry!”

“Not a problem. I mean, don’t they say that club soda gets everything out anyway? It’s all good.”

Facebook got a little red-faced. “Well, I’m really sorry, dude. I was just trying to lighten the mood. I feel like all I hear about lately are lost and abandoned dogs and then I see their sad, sweet, lonely faces. It’s getting to me, I suppose. I just needed to share, I guess.”

“No worries,” said Gary, dabbing his shirt with some paper towels brought over by a female guest, who caught a glimpse of my arm. “Omigod, where did you get that bracelet? That’s amazing!” StumbleUpon’s eyes were wide. “Etsy! Come look at this! It reminds me of a paper origami bracelet I saw once. I always wanted to go to Japan. Have you ever seen a baby hedgehog?”

“OK, really?! I think I’m good to go,” Gary said a little impatiently. “I’m sure all of these people are extremely talented at what they do. They all bring a lot to the party, that’s for sure. But this is all making me a little lightheaded,” he said, scanning for a chair.

Pinterest, who had changed outfits and was now sporting a purple-plumed wide-brimmed hat, approached us with a bright smile. “Would this banana split parfait in a vintage jelly jar make you feel any better?”

“Engagement” isn’t Always a Love Story

holdhandshadowThink of someone you know with an “engaging” personality. It’s probably a person who has interesting, positive things to say, which is not to say they agree or necessarily support you. It’s probably someone who gets you thinking outside your box. He inspires you, challenges you, energizes you, and maybe leaves you a little breathless when he departs.

Through online and social media we seek to connect, to engage in a way that gets our current and potential clients interested in hearing (and doing, and buying) more. Businesses want to build buzz, gain followers, promote, succeed; to influence positively, and leave their customers and potential clients a little breathless. However, in the online numbers game, talk is cheap, and so are “Likes.” “Following” doesn’t equate “engaging” any more than holding hands equates with eloping; numbers don’t mean much without passion.

Engagement is a necessary element of a successful social media strategy, but clearly there is more to captivating an audience than putting on a virtual happy face and bombarding them with links to coupons and videos while building followers. Your engaging friend may know a lot about current events or music or wine varietals, but if she consistently just talked AT you, you would probably start dodging her phone calls pretty quickly.

Chances are she’s a really good listener, too, and it’s the banter and balance you value as much as her entertaining stories. She probably doesn’t care so much about the sheer volume of friends she has as she does the quality of her interactions and the positive energy she derives from them. Chances are, when she’s engaging you, she reacts to your reaction thoughtfully, knowledgeably, empathetically. Maybe she agrees with what you’re saying. Or maybe she doesn’t — standing her ground, challenging you with facts, photos, insights. She doesn’t necessarily prove you wrong; but she cares what you have to say, respects your opinion even if she helps you consider other possibilities.

If you’ve ever been part of a relationship (friend, partner, coworker) who adored your praise but in effect “deleted” your constructive feelings and responses, you began to lose the trust that what you said mattered to them. Online engagement demonstrates commitment; and transparent, productive, meaningful engagement demonstrates trust.

The “questioning” — the authentic interest in what, why, and how your “Likers” like — and understanding what they don’t — is critical, but the “answering” is where the success stories are made.

Why You Should Kinda Stop Saying This Word

“Kinda,” as in “kind of,” or its cousin, “sorta,” has become a staple of our professional vernacular. In presentations, meetings, and conference calls, “kinda” and “sorta” add a comforting conversational lilt, and can serve as less irritating filler devices than “uhs” and “ums.” But while the occasional “er” might be merely distracting or slightly irritating, using “kinda” and “sorta” can actually detract from your message, change your meaning, and even impact your listeners’ confidence in your material. Here’s why.

dialogueboxes“Kinda” Lacks Conviction

“Here’s what we’re kinda focusing on in the upcoming months.” Whether or not you are all in, hedging with vague filler words like these (and others) convey that you’re not solidly committed to your statements, or that you’re being purposely vague.

“Sorta” Skews the Stats

If your colleague says, “As you’ll kinda see from this chart, we’re kinda making some progress this year,” does that mean we are actually making progress, or did we sort of make progress? If the sales uptick was marginal, it could make sense to frame it that way. But it’s an easy phrase to use out of habit, and incorrectly. Be aware that, unlike filler “ums” and “uhs,” these words modify the meaning of the story we’re telling.

Your Credibility May Take a Hit

Message-muddying “sortas” and other hedge words can make you sound inauthentic. Studies demonstrate disfluencies such as “um” and “uh” affect listeners’ perceptions of the speaker. So, despite many weeks of research or months at the helm of a team, you might come across as unprepared and ineffective if you’re flip-flopping over filler words.

You Sorta Sound Submissive

Are your “sortas” and “kindas” tossed around in an effort to assume a more conversational, easygoing tone? Are you attempting to soften your stance or avoid a conflict? There are other ways to win over an audience or sound more informal without diluting your point.

It’s Kinda Habit Forming

Unlike the brain-pausing “ums” and “you knows” that pop up in our speech, “kind of,” “sort of,” “almost” and “pretty much” are common in our written communications as well. Again, there are occasions where using these terms in your writing make perfect sense and better illustrate your point, but they are dulling your effectiveness if you’re sort of just slipping them in and almost not even thinking about why.

So, next time you are addressing your colleagues, take care with these words and you’ll tighten up your presentations, improve your effectiveness, and inspire your listeners. And isn’t that kinda the point?

Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

This was originally published on LinkedIn.com.



Can’t Sleep? Shut Down the Corporation in Your Head

One reason I left the “city that never sleeps” is precisely that: It never shuts down, there’s always something going on. That energy and intensity can be exhilarating, especially if you are able to shut it out come bedtime. (Car alarms were my ultimate downfall.) But if you can’t, there goes YOUR energy and intensity, along with your productivity.

Years later in suburban Connecticut, at the helm of my own small business, and with many other responsibilities and a household to run, I sometimes lie awake, plagued by the buzzing activity of commerce in my head. As I try to think calming thoughts, go to my happy place, what have you, the CEO of Hilory Inc. reminds me of the list of ongoing projects that are overdue, over budget, and underfunded.

You may be familiar with mindfulness meditation, the practice of focusing your thoughts and awareness on the moment and on your bodily sensations to clear and calm your mind. This can be quite an effective approach, except that in the office-building-of-my-body, the clacking of keyboards and marathon strategy sessions are staunch rivals for observing the ins and outs of my breath. So I apply a different mind-game: I visualize a department-by-department shutdown of my internal corporation, patiently and non-judgmentally allowing the entire staff to take the (rest of the) night off.

The first department to go dark is HR. In this sleep-deprived metaphor, this is the “team” that focuses on hiring and firing (aka My Relationships), morale, compensation, compliance, and employee engagement (also aka My Relationships). Nighttime is prime time for replaying interactions and criticizing my overall performance. For this area, I suggest focusing only on the benefits as we turn out the lights for the evening.

Windows at night

Next is the accounting department, who for some reason still uses those old-fashioned paper-roll calculators, miles of curled red-printed tapes littering the floor. She usually doesn’t look up the first time I interrupt with a loud “ahem.” But when she does, I assure her that the numbers, whatever color they happen to be today, will still be there in the morning, so shut it down, girlfriend! Sure, they are already trading in Japan at this hour, but I remind her that we actually DO NOT OWN ANY JAPANESE STOCKS. Close the books, and lights out.

Strategic planning is a small area – I’ve always been more of a tactical, assignment-driven worker, so this harried employee is a bit out of her league, typically hunched over the laptop head-in-hands reading business blog posts or staring out the window blankly in a fugue state. Future visioning is sort of the antithesis to mindfulness, so this one definitely has to go. I tell her there can be no Tomorrow if we expire from exhaustion Today, and give her a little shove out the door as I switch off the humming fluorescents.

Much like the car alarm outside my city window, the Marketing department continuously seeks attention, suggesting product ideas, blog posts, and event themes. Apparently, accounting has turned down many of her funding requests, so she is constantly on the lookout for low- to no-cost options. Constantly. I remind her how much more effective brainstorming usually is over MORNING coffee, and send her home. Click.

The communications director is most tenacious because, as we all know, e-mails, pins and Instagrams know no earthly timeframes. Even though she claimed to have knocked off for the day, you see her in the dark, her face aglow from her Facebook feed. “There’s no need to post that you can’t sleep,” I remind her, and she promises she’s not actually working, that Words with Friends is “relaxing.” This would be a good time to call the IT director (also still awake, puzzling over new printer options and data plans) and have her block all the Wi-Fi access until the morning.

Shuffling the cleaning crew out the door (she’s NEVER finished, by the way), I turn off the lobby spotlights and lock up. To any lingering number cruncher or project manager I politely say, “You don’t have to go home, but I can’t sleep if you’re here.“ And then, finally, I focus on my breathing and usually drift off.

Okay, so wandering from office to office in my head might sound a little loopy, but then again, it’s late, shadowy and I’m already loopy when I invoke this approach. As with mindfulness, it’s a non-judgmental way I give myself permission to quiet the crowd, to shut down the grid, and allow the entire “team” to recharge. And sometimes, that’s when the department of strategic planning does her best work, offering some coded vision for the future through the quiet of my dreams.

Also posted on BlogHer: http://bit.ly/1oZifnu 


The New Chivalry

In more genteel times — that is, before restaurants were dotted with people talking and texting on their cell phones — refined men carried handkerchiefs. As the name implies, they were certainly handy, especially before the pocket-pack of Kleenex was invented. But beyond the practicality of it, they enabled a gallant gesture, held out to a woman to dab her brow or wipe her tears. It simply and elegantly showed he cared.

Today I discovered a handkerchief for our times, a tool enabling a noble gesture unheard of in Jane Austen’s era. By wrapping his cell phone in the Phonekerchief, available from Uncommon Goods, a fellow can show he cares enough to hold his calls ALL THE WAY THROUGH DINNER.

While leaving the buzzing, beeping thing in the car is another, decidedly low-tech (and even lower-cost) option, this certainly sends a signal while it blocks another. More than a pretty show and tell, the Phonekerchief fabric actually disrupts the incoming phone signal. Apparently, it has to be wrapped tightly and correctly to cancel any external static (those annoying calls, facebook alerts, and texts), which makes performing this origami-like task effectively even more dreamy.

Want to really sweep her off her feet? Try tucking your phone away before you put the car in drive. Now that’s irresistible. (What can I say? I’m just a hopeless romantic.)

Here’s the backstory from Designer Ingrid Zweifel:

Oh, the Humanity!

I guess it’s not odd that the standout, game-changing speaker at last week’s Hartford Business Journal / CVC-PRSA Social Media Summit would make an indirect reference to a Seinfeldism. But when you realize that the speaker wasn’t even born when it was first said, you might wonder if, in this constantly-evolving environment where the decision-drivers aren’t even old enough to drive, you are social media-worthy.

Fourteen-year-old Lane Sutton, who has been profiled by CNN, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, yada yada, spoke with confidence, assurance and great specificity as to what works in social media and how subtle shifts in approach can significantly change results. His key message was simple: Build your brand by humanizing your social media strategy.

You can get 25% more fans, he says, with a human avatar, he says, than a business logo. Find your community online, listen, and contribute. Don’t talk at the communities: keep the “selling” out of it, for the most part, by making your content 90 percent about them, and 10 percent about you. “Engagement makes conversation, and gets you the relationships you want. Content stirs it up a little more.”

But let’s say you are selling something as practical and utilitarian as a blender. Would you want to follow Tweets about puree speeds? Talk about stirring up emotions: Lane shared a viral YouTube video from Blendtec that was positively cringeworthy: how to make an iPad smoothie. Don’t try THAT at home, but if you want to boost your sales by 700 percent too, you can learn something from this approach.

In his presentation, Lane told us about some immediately actionable tools for getting a handle on who is listening to you, who you should listen to, and what you should be reading, including:

So how do you know if you are sharing relevant, engaging content? Consider Lane’s question: “Are you status-update worthy?”