An open letter to American VPs of Marketing

Let’s imagine we’re having a pot of tea…and I say…

Your job as a VP of Marketing is simple right? Build and nurture long-lasting, profitable relationships with your target audiences. Grow the business. A quick search of LinkedIn lists the needed skill set. Leadership, strategic thinking, project management, organizational and presentation skills, teamwork, recruiting. To name just a few. Piece of cake. If that weren’t enough, every part of that effort begins with words. Which we all know, have a bit of a reputation as having a mind of their own.

Make sure your words are up to snuff

But what if your words don’t quite work as well and as hard as you need them to? What if all the words you use to talk about products, services, tough decisions, working together, corporate history, your organization’s very reason for being, lack fire? What if your story, in all its permutations, just sounds…I don’t know… meh?

If that’s the case, know that I am deeply sympathetic. I know how hard it is to write with clarity, wit and verve. To persuade with clarity, wit and verve is wicked hard.

“Words are the clearest, most direct path to new relationships.”

In spite of everything, you still have to try. And you have to try because words are the clearest, most direct path to new and lasting relationships. To growing the business. There’s also the small matter of your voice.

Lyrics are just one part of the song

As important as your words are, lyrics are only one part of the song. Your voicecarries enormous power and might even matter more. It’s your voice that truly connects. Your voice can sell. It can provoke, delight and inspire, too. Voice is personality, evidence of an actual human being. But here’s the reality. The disembodied voice found in most business writing is dead, detached, bored or exhausted. Usually all four at once.

“Our dedicated team of experts are driving innovative solutions to change the mobile landscape.”

{If you needed a definition of ‘meh’ there it is.}

Carefully chosen words that come out of a well-developed brand voice are as common as a minimum wage CEO. How fragmented, noisy and crowded is the market right now? How hard is it to get heard? It’s crazy hard. That’s why having a well-developed brand voice is like opening a big can of whoop ass. It’s one of the best competitive advantages you can have.

A distinctive brand voice is like a big can of whoop ass. It might be the single greatest competitive advantage you can have. 

The real mystery is why brand voice—as a way to distinguish a brand—is so widely ignored in these United States. (It’s slightly better in the UK.)

It begins with respect

Part of the problem is that people get nervous. Corporate language should not stand out. It should sound like everyone else. Even risk takers get the willies. Visit enough conference rooms and you’ll hear this theme all the time. “Oh, they’llnever let us say that.”

“Even the risk takers get the willies.”

 That might refer to starting a sentence with the word and, or, it could mean a sentence fragment. Gawd! It might mean writing that sounds like human conversation. What’s missing is a respect for what words are meant to do—tell stories, make connections, get reactions. To get someone to pay some bloody attention to what the hell we’re saying. Somewhere along the way we stopped believing in words.

Great business writing is translation

You might find the important sounding vision statement below perfectly fine. I hope not. I do know that this is what many people expect now. Performance. Leveraging. Leading-edge. Utilize. In a lot of ways, the fine art of business writing is the fine art of translation.  What would happen if we translated this…

Our vision
Our vision is to transform our intensive care performance by leveraging critical care expertise. We provide improved outcomes with measurable results utilizing talented clinicians, supported by leading-edge technology and a commitment to evidence-based best practices and process improvement.

into this…

Where we’re going

We want our patients in intensive care to get better, faster. Everything we know about critical care is key to this. We’ll track results and act on the evidence. With smart clinicians and new, better tools, we’re poised to get better every day.

Words do matter

I’ve enjoyed our imaginary pot of tea. I’ll finish by saying that so much of our lives is centered on work. Many of us believe passionately in what we do. But along the way, we’ve learned to be afraid. We can’t say what we think. We’re not willing to speak in a clear, human voice about the cool stuff we’re doing, why it matters, why anyone should care. Given how much time we spend working, how important relationships are to our emotional lives and the life of the planet, I say we change it.

Are you with me?

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Are you feeling it? Inspiration is the soul of your writing life

There’s a place deep inside you—call it your life force, your spring of pure, clear water. To write your best, you need to travel there. Again and again. 

It’s happening as we speak. Every township, city and village is being flooded by untold numbers of books, articles, blog posts, podcasts, newsletters and tweets on how to write. Six ways to better, quicker, easier. Seven ways to more of this, less of that. No matter what kind of writer you are, there are gems to be found. I’ve shined my little flashlight app into every corner imaginable in search of the keepers. I bet you have, too.

But here’s the thing. In all this writing about writing, I wish for more. I want more about the one thing that counts the most. Inspiration. My writer friend Jamie Jauncey thinks of this as a place. A spring of pure, clear water.

spring torridon{photo by Richard Pelletier}

(Yes, I have heard about painter Chuck Close and his famous quote: “Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” To which I say, okay fine. Why not both?)

Those of us who are commercial writers can always find out how to write better emails. Or a better case study. We can get help to structure a piece, frame it, or tighten it up. We can improve our calls to action. That is all hugely important.

Some writing projects are going to light you up like the Manhattan skyline. And then there are the others. But either way, we still have to bring the goods.

So to keep creating our best work, and imagining new ways to create, we have to be in touch with that place inside — that spring of pure, clear water.

But how? Where do we find the inspiration we need? As in so many things, it’s all around you.

Walk and listen
Recently on a long walk, I tuned into a podcast with the jazz great Herbie Hancock. He talked about his book, Possibilities and about chanting. He chants a Buddhist chant, Nam Myho Renge Kyo, up to three hours daily. That chant is Herbie’s spring of pure clear water.

What shocked me is what I learned later. Herbie has lectured on the Ethics of Jazz at Harvard. Turns out he is far more than a great composer and player. His command and erudition about his art were jaw-dropping inspiring.

Write everyday
Whenever I return to morning pages (Julia Cameron’s brilliant writing practice idea) I feel like I’m living a different sort of life. More connected — to the larger stream of things and to my own creativity. It opens things up.

notebooks{photo by Richard Pelletier}

I start doing my morning pages and poof! New clients, new projects, new ideas start pouring over the transom. It’s true and it comes directly from the Chuck Close notion: showing up to work. You got the Moleskin, use it!

Look at Brene Brown’s TED talk
Since roughly one gazillion people have seen this TED talk, it’s likely not new to you. Either way, new or not, watch it. Her delightful, self-deprecating ways and her brilliant deduction that shame and vulnerability are the birthplace of innovation and creativity…well, that is just hands down provocative and yes, inspiring.

Travel has almost no equal in the sphere of inspiration. Going to new places, wild and civilized, crowded and empty, quiet and beautiful is as edifying an experience as you can have. Go and listen. Eat and drink. Walk. Take pictures.

early torridon morning{photo by Richard Pelletier}

Write about all of it. You don’t always have to get on an airplane or a ship. Think of how many places around you that you’ve been unwilling to poke around in.

Listen to these voices talk about travel.

“Travel brings power and love back into your life.” -Rumi

“And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again – to slow time down and get taken in, and to fall in love once more.”          -Pico Iyer

Create a project, invite some people in
We live in an age of collaboration and platforms. Find a group of people you like who are doing interesting things. Cook up a project you can do together. Find a platform you all can work with. And see if you can’t make something new, something inspiring to yourselves and others.

nbcrossings{photo by Nancy Bowker, @nbcrossings}

Last year I launched an Instagram project that married words and images. It was known as 12x12x62 Stories and Images. We had 12 photographers make 12 images and pair each image to 62 words of text. You can see the results here: The results have been nothing but inspiring.

There’s so much more to cover. Listen to music, dip into the cartoons of Hugh MacLeod, go to the theater, attend lectures, the list goes on.

Catch you later, I’m headed out for my walk.

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