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.