Archive for September, 2012|Monthly archive page

‘Maybe stories are just data with a soul.’

In storytelling, words, writing on September 27, 2012 at 2:18 pm

In 25 years of writing for a wildly varying assortment of for-profit and non-profit organizations, I’ve seen the same battle over perception playing out over and over again.

Nearly everywhere, I’ve encountered people who were convinced that if their story was told … well, as a story, with anecdotes or examples and in a conversational style, it would instantly lose credibility. Years apart, colleagues in two very different nonprofits expressed their deep-seated fear that an overhaul of their publication to a more magazine-like format would turn it into People. One mention of the word “magazine,” and all they could conjure up was a celebrity glossy. They were genuinely alarmed and not easily convinced.

These and other intelligent, highly educated colleagues over the years would hold tight to their academic or scientific or industry jargon, their way-down-in-the-weeds, eye-glazing detail and their “just-the-facts, ma’am” approach as credentials of a sort. One academic protested that his work didn’t need examples or more approachable language and explanations because there were only a few people in the world who followed his area of specialty, and they didn’t care about that sort of thing.

If there has been a common thread in my career, it has been this uphill battle to convince people that taking something complex and making it colorful and engaging is a good thing … that everyone, no matter how brilliant or credentialed, likes to be entertained when they read.

I’ve seen stellar short- and long-form writing (from ad campaigns to magazine articles) numbed-down after too many people in too many meetings gave in to this kind of insecurity – to the notion that it is more important to impress than it is to engage.

It’s always heartening to see businesses and nonprofits where the truly creative stuff makes it out into the world, unfiltered by “the committee” – where the creatives are allowed to live up to their job description. (After all, it does seem like a colossal waste of money to hire people with skills you have no intention of using.)


I watched a TED talk by Brene Brown a few weeks after writing this, and I was struck by the story she told at the beginning. An event planner was struggling with how to describe Brown in promoting an upcoming speaking engagement. She thought calling Brown a researcher would lead people to assume that her presentation would be boring, so she suggested calling her a “storyteller.” Brown recoiled at the description. “The academic, insecure part of me was like, ‘What?’” But she came around to the idea. “Maybe,” she thought, “stories are just data with a soul.” She told the woman to bill her as a researcher-storyteller – at which point the event planner laughed and told Brown there was no such thing. “…Stories are just data with a soul” is one of my favorite quotations now.

(“re-blogging” this post from my former business web site) 

Fear. (Alternate title: ‘the day I berated a vacuum cleaner’)

In words, writing on September 10, 2012 at 11:30 pm

In 1972, when I had just started second grade, my 48-year-old father went to the emergency room with chest pain on the evening of Labor Day, had a massive heart attack in the hospital Tuesday and died early the next morning. What this planted in the back of my seven-year-old mind was the notion that big, terrible, unpredictable things may be lurking around the next corner.

At age 47, that message hasn’t gone away (it tends to be bolstered over time as you see more big, terrible things happen to other people you love), but age and parenthood have made me try to think differently.

(The star of this tale.)

These days, when I think of both my father, frozen in time at 48, with whom I shared  just seven years, and my own daughter and feel that familiar forboding, I can usually stop myself and shake it off. The flip side of losing a parent so young is that you really do understand all too well how stupid it is to waste valuable time in the here and now. But I haven’t exactly reached the fully enlightened stage in this cerebral battle, which brings me to the vacuuming story.


At my house, the home of two writer/readers, we love words, and we have ended up with quite a collection of tiny Magnetic Poetry tiles. They’re supposed to live on the refrigerator and our purple metal bulletin board and the metal surround of our ancient built-in medicine cabinet, but over time, they’ve ended up scattered all over the house.

On those rare occasions when I feel ambitious enough to launch into a vacuuming frenzy, venturing under furniture and into all sorts of unseen spots I usually zoom past (after all, visitors will never see that dust!), it’s not unusual to come across magnetic words in unusual places.

During one frenzy,  I spotted a tile wedged between the slats of a basket and pried it out, doing a double-take when I saw what it was.

“Fear” had become stuck in the basket where we keep our games … those things you do for  “fun.” I laughed, put the tile aside and turned the vacuum cleaner back on. A couple of minutes later, forgetting about it, I accidentally sucked “fear” up into the vacuum.

I would never have predicted how unhinged this would make me.

“You can’t take my ‘fear’!” I shrieked (no lie), pulling the canister open and carrying the nearly full bag to the back yard, where I poked a letter opener around in the dusty innards until I recovered my “fear.”


A therapist could obviously have a field day with this story; clearly I needed to do just a little more work on that “fear of the  unknown” problem.

But as I thought about my over-the-top reaction, I decided there was probably another layer to the Vacuum Cleaner Incident that is more rooted in what I am – writer, editor, lifelong journal keeper – than in my psychological junk.

Words are powerful for me. I keep a list of favorite words. I’m not very good at meditation and breathing exercises, but when I go for a run when I’m stressed out or busy, I’ve gotten in the habit of thinking of good words as I breathe in and bad ones as I breathe out (‘fear’ is a big one on the exhaling list). And I’m picky/proprietary about our magnetic poetry words; the ones that speak to me get strung together into weird or inspirational or semi-racy phrases or sentences. The ones that bore me become outcasts, pushed down into the word ghetto at the bottom of the refrigerator door.

So I think my nutty visceral reaction was partly due to feeling a certain horror at seeing that small but forceful word – one that’s obviously deeply embedded in my life’s vocabulary – being taken away from me in such a literal way.

I’ve thought about sticking “fear” back in the bottom of the game basket, where it could take on a more laidback life … Fear of losing one’s empire in Monopoly. Fear of getting sent back to ‘home base’ in Trouble over and over again, just when you have your last peg ready to go into the home base row. And so on. Much more doable fears than the ones that tend to scroll through your head on sleepless nights.

But I think I’ll put it back into circulation on the refrigerator and see what poetic things I can do with “fear” to lessen its magnetism.

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