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Let the wild rumpus start

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As soon as I read this passage to my three-year old from the classic book Where the Wild Things Are, I felt a wave of pleasure and a flash back to my own childhood.  I had forgotten how ripe and tantalizing the words were; perfectly chosen, crisp, simple and powerful:

And when he came to the place where the wild things are
they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth
and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws
till Max said “BE STILL!”
and tamed them with the magic trick
of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once
and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all
and made him king of all wild things
“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”

Why isn’t all writing like that?

As readers, we hunger for clear, useful, insightful and inspiring words.

As writers, we long to speak the truth and say something relevant and important.

But somehow in our professional lives, we are taught to convolute, complicate and butcher perfectly good language when communicating with users, clients, customers, employees and partners.

How can we clean up our writing so that we evoke the spirit of a well-written children’s book?  Some thoughts:

In Presentations:  Trust your instincts.

In my prior days as a management consultant, I was brought into a project at a large multinational company with short notice and no information.  For four hours, I sat in a dark conference room with a bunch of serious-looking executives and listened to an “overview” presentation that was a minimum of 300 PowerPoint slides, with eye-crossing graphs, charts and bullets.  At the end of the presentation, although I wouldn’t admit it to anyone in public, I still had no idea what the project was about.  Seriously.  None whatsoever.  And I was no green bean; I had participated in large projects in large organizations for many years. Finally, once I was able to corner a smart-looking person, I said “Can you tell me in 10 words or less what this project is about?”  “Sure,” he said.  “It is a reorganization.”

They could have saved 299.9 slides and 4 hours worth of my billable time if they had just said those four words.

There is a conspiracy cooked up by marketing wonks, consultants and executives to pay for words by the pound, and to question the intelligence of a corporate “professional” who does not create complex and obtuse presentations.  They are wrong. Your instinct to keep things clean and simple is right.  A few tips:

  • Use clear language.  As much as you may feel pressure to use the fancy words in your industry, stick with clear, descriptive language.  Avoid jargon, clichés and insider metaphors.  If your audience is highly technical, use the terms that they relate to and expect.  If it is a mixed crowd, give a variety of clear, topic-appropriate examples, with a few specific technical references that relate to that portion of your audience.  If you still struggle to simplify your language, you could always get a gang member coach.
  • Focus your topic.  Know what your primary message is, and support it with no more than three sub-points.  Cramming every feature, benefit, angle or alternative into a presentation will just overwhelm and confuse your audience.  If they want more information, they will ask for it, and then you can get to the real purpose of your presentation which is dialogue and interaction.
  • Take the Presentation Zen approach to mixing words and graphics.  Powerful graphic images anchor ideas in the minds of your audience.  Cut most of the words out of your slides.  If you have to say “I know you can’t see the details of this chart, but …,” you shouldn’t include it.  Choose your graphics carefully, and make sure they truly help illustrate a point. My Dad, a professional writer and photographer, was laughing with me the other day as he recalled seeing the same “circular arrow flow chart” graphic in at least a hundred presentations in his career.  “It never made any sense, but everyone used it,” he said.

In Blogs:  Speak from your soul.

Blog culture encourages open, personal and straight communication.  But we still fall victim to being either too boring and generic, or too self-indulgent with “Here are twelve more pictures of my cat and kids plus 35 responses to memes” posts.   Instead:

Write for your audience.

Some bloggers write about whatever strikes their fancy, and it suits them well. I tend to stick close to my readers.  Questions that guide my content include:

  • What problems do they face?
  • What really scares them?
  • What is not being said on this subject on other news sources or blogs?
  • What can I share that will make their life easier
  • How can I make them feel more supported and confident?
  • Who can I put them in contact with (via links or references) that will give them good information and advice?
  • What will be fun and interesting to write about?

Speak from your soul.

Your head can play tricks on you when choosing topics.  Mostly, it will play on your fears and insecurities of needing to appear “smart” or “hip.”  Dig deeper and write what you feel is the truth.  Your truth will be different than anyone else’s, so many are bound to disagree, but that is part of the fun.  If you worry about how smart or important you sound, your writing will come out stilted and insincere.  A passage from the delightful book If You Want to Write:  A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland sums it up nicely:

“…inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness.  I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten – happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead in front of another.”

Use your superpowers for good.

This is a favorite saying of my friend Marilyn Scott-Waters, a talented illustrator who has given away over 3 million lovingly illustrated paper toys on her website thetoymaker.com.  Snark and gossip are part of our lives and can be entertaining in a superficial kind of way.  But if you are going to spend hours and hours researching and writing and opining, why not do it for the purpose of uplifting and enlightening?  There are enough forces in the world right now bent on humiliation, death and destruction.  So voice your honest thoughts, just do so without shaming, scaring or ridiculing the subjects of your opinions.

In phone interactions with customers:  Ditch the scripts.

I cringe every time I hear a dejected, underpaid (or hyper-cheery – even worse) customer service representative answer my call with “Hi, my name is Sue, how can I provide you with excellent customer service?”  The last thing that is on my mind after waiting on hold for twenty minutes is how Sue can provide me with excellent customer service.  What I care about is getting my questions answered and my problems resolved.

So if you have staff that answers the phone to talk with customers, skip the scripted nonsense, and encourage your folks to be polite, friendly and flexible.

In sales copy:  Cut the hype.

Most of us have to sell our ideas in writing.  If you work for yourself and sell a product or service, you may have to create marketing materials or a sales letter.  There are well-documented copywriting recipes that specify what color or font size to make your headlines, which ‘words that sell’ to use at which part of the letter, and how to format and use testimonials from satisfied customers.  Study these examples, as you are bound to learn something from them, but don’t become a slave to a formula.  In addition:

  • Show your personality. Don’t suddenly change your voice just because you are writing a sales letter.  Use the style and language that you know makes your audience comfortable.  Don’t be afraid to be playful and funny, or serious and straightforward, if it fits within the style and spirit of what you are selling.
  • Don’t insult your audience with infomercial nonsense like “But wait, there’s more!”  We are all tired of reading advertising copy that jumps out and screams at us.  And as Seth Godin said:
“the most effective technique is making stuff worth talking about in the first place. True viral marketing happens not when the marketer plans for it or targets bloggers or skateboarders or pirates with goatees, but when the item/service/event is worth talking about.”
  • Use the “slime gauge.” Put yourself in the place of a potential customer.  Read your words and see how you feel.  Do you have a vague sense of embarrassment?  Do you have a sudden urge to take a shower?  Go back and scrub your document of any marketing slime and focus on the real, tangible benefits that make you truly proud of your product or service.

In messages to potential partners, customers, or mentors:  Bring back foreplay.

Email is a great way to begin to build a relationship with someone who interests you.  But too often, we forget all rules of human interaction and jump right to a jarring, intimate request, such as:

“I see that your blog reaches a similar target audience as mine.  I am sure they would be interested in my product, so could you link to it?  I will link to you if you link to me.”

Such crude, direct language turns me off immediately.  Instead:

  • Treat online relationships like all relationships.  Just as you wouldn’t go up to someone you had never met at a networking event and kiss them on the lips, you shouldn’t demand something the first time you approach someone online.  “Link exchange” is a thing of the past.  Before someone knows if they want to share you and your ideas with their audience, they want to get to know and trust you.  So let that intimacy and trust build naturally, based on mutual interest and exchange of ideas.  If a joint venture, book review, link exchange or product endorsement is meant to happen, it will.  And you may just make a real advocate and friend in the process.
  • Focus each part of the email conversation in the moment, not on your “closing goal.” In personal and business settings, you can feel when someone is going through the motions to try to “close a deal” with you.  The most obvious examples are an overzealous suitor in a bar, or an enthusiastic relative recently introduced to a business scheme who is hot to sell you new skin products.  Avoid this uncomfortable dynamic by just enjoying each email interaction as you have it.  Look for ways that you can support, inform and encourage your “object of affection.”  If there is not a natural momentum or energy, back off and put your attention elsewhere.
  • Be respectful of the other’s time.  You may find that you build a natural, friendly connection with someone that you really admire.  Or you may develop a truly supportive and friendly mailing list of interested customers.  Do not jeopardize this relationship by asking for too much input, or sending too many messages.  Email clutter is a real problem these days, and if you go overboard, you will soon reinforce a connection between your name and the delete button.

Common sense is rarely common practice.  So if some of this advice gets you ostracized, ridiculed or even fired, all I can say is “Welcome to the other side.”  Your audience will thank you for standing up for truth and clarity.

Let the wild rumpus start.

(image credit:  the awe-inspiring Maurice Sendak)

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36 Responses to “Let the wild rumpus start”

  1. Air jordans were so popular that the 1st two shipments of Air jordan shoes to an Los Angeles preserve sold out in three days. In three a couple of months during 1985 Nike sold the quantity of Air Jordans they had projected to promot during the entire year.

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  5. [...] passage from a book I absolutely adored as a child, Where the Wild Things Are. Pam Slim shared this in a post (from which I stole, no, borrowed the title of this post) and I thought it would be fitting [...]

  6. Queen Helstrom says:

    Awesome tip! I just started writing a book, and e-book publishing may be the way to go.

  7. Great post! And a lot of respect to the copyright laws.

  8. Claudia says:

    Plain language rocks. What a juicy warm up for WCWW2.

  9. A wonderful post!

    I read Where the Wild Things Are to my niece last night and had a wonderful time reconnecting with my roaring, snarling wild thing!

    Having sat through many a meeting and wondered whether I was the only one who had no idea what was going on, I could relate to your powerpoint brain freeze.

    Long may truth and clarity reign!
    .-= Fiona Leonard´s last blog ..Bon Appetit! =-.

  10. Leah says:

    Hi Pam,
    My reading this today was perfect timing. I just bagged myself for moving away from my authentic bad-ass voice an falling into the trap of doing things the way I thought I was supposed to do in my blog and e-zine. To tell you the truth, I was starting to bore myself with what I was putting out there. Don’t get me wrong…very helpful content…but certainly not in my most authentic voice. No wonder it was starting to feel like work! I admit that i have been reading too much “how too” promote this and market that crap lately…I started to get a bit brainwashed.
    You Rock!
    Leah
    .-= Leah´s last blog ..Why Do I Want the Relationship I Want ? =-.

  11. [...] Clarity.  Say what you think and mean what you say.  Personal branding is nothing more than amplifying who you really are. Don’t try to get fancy and mix a bunch of “strategery” in your communications, just speak clearly and plainly. I expand on this topic in detail in my post Let the wild rumpus start. [...]

  12. Sarah says:

    Dear Pam

    Thank you for re-inspiring me to write from the heart and as a “real person”. It is too easy to slide into lazy habits and marketing speak.

    My mother is one of my keenest blog followers and I find that re-reading what I have written with her in mind helps to keep me honest.

    I shall remember your words and strive to stay natural! Thanks again

  13. [...] Let the wild rumpus start | Escape From Cubicle Nation As readers, we hunger for clear, useful, insightful and inspiring words. As writers, we long to speak the truth and say something relevant and important. But somehow in our professional lives, we are taught to convolute, complicate and butcher perfectly good language when communicating with users, clients, customers, employees and partners. How can we clean up our writing so that we evoke the spirit of a well-written children’s book? …Use your superpowers for good. (tags: writing communication connection clarity) [...]

  14. birdsalot says:

    A lot of respect for copyright here. Way to go.

  15. Hannah Jones says:

    Pam
    I saw this trailer and thought of you http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=–N9klJXbjQ
    Its for the “Where the Wild Things” film
    Hannah

  16. Miriam says:

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

    Miriam

    http://www.craigslistposter.info

  17. Pam,
    I love the post, and it came at a great time. I have been reminding myself and my clients of the importance of staying authentic. It is difficult to keep your true voice when everyone screams “do it this way if you want it to work”.

    I agree with you about sales copy. I recently commented to my husband that I’m sick of the nonending web pages with red arrows, twenty testimonials, and varying fonts. They all look the same, and my eyes just jump over them. I’m finding my own beauty to catch the eye, not the formula!

    Thanks again for the thoughts!
    Kim
    http://creatingrewardingrelationships.blogspot.com/

  18. Andy Webb says:

    Pam,

    I’m an ad guy who somehow stumbled in here. I really liked what you had to say about good communication.

    To your excellent advice I would add, “always make sure your writing flows from a strong idea.”

    Andy

  19. Jurgen Wolff says:

    That selection from “Where the Wild Things Are” also seems to me to be a great summary of how to face the current economic wild things and wild times.

  20. Well now, that’s a nicely written piece, and there’s a ton of tips worth paying attention to in that. (I have nothing more intelligent to add without coffee, I’m afraid.)

    Plus I like the picture. Love it.

  21. Chris Witt says:

    Pam, I love what you say. I find that most people use big words to hide how small their ideas are. If they’ve got a big idea that they believe in, they can say it simply.

    Doc Pomus — the legendary songwriter who penned “A Teenager in Love” and “Save the Last Dance for Me” — was asked how to write a hit song. He answered, “Find the shortest distance between your insides and a pencil.” I think his advice applies to a lot of things other than song writing.

  22. Carolyn says:

    Pam, great post! It’s a real treat to find advice on blogging that doesn’t revolve around selling one’s soul (using catchy headlines!) to increase traffic (by ten times!). You are always so sane, and you make me feel like progress on my own terms is possible. Thank you!

  23. Pam,

    Reorgs=BAD Strategic Realignment=Good! At least that is what you are told as an employee. Since this happens every 7-10 years in many corporations, why should it come as a shock to any of us. The 300 page PP is standard, wasteful and boring, but it meets the needs of a CXO who feels the need to share his/her brilliance. I would like to see a bottom level employee have the same assignment and make the presentation to the CXO level execs. I bet the message would be clearer and it would be 10 slides.

    And with that presentation the RUMPUS would begin!

    Mark

    http://www.atomicpenny.com

  24. I’m in agreement…no question but what business can teach us to convolute…but having worked with a lot of families, I’d suggest that a lot of families teach us to convolute.

    Interestingly, all the research indicates that the best jobs are for those with expert thinking skills and COMPLEX COMMUNICATION SKILLS. And that’s not more opportunity for convolution.

    The field of language technology is so new that college grads are still not getting that seminal training.

    http://www.danerwin.com

  25. Danno says:

    This was a good post. I stop in every once in a while and enjoy your posts. They’re informative and kind of make me think in a different direction. Thanks again!

  26. Pam, This was truly a magnificent post. It was full of rich content and information I needed at this particular time in my life. Thanks again for sharing your wisdom and kindness.

  27. Scott Fox says:

    Hi Pam,
    Good post and fun title and art! Having three year olds in the house is a wonderful thing.

  28. Kelly says:

    Wow, Pam. What a content-rich post!!! Seriously one of your best. In my fantasy, my in-progress office walls are covered in rich posts like this and I actually re-read them daily…if only there were the time. I can say this one will get added to the blog under “Great Articles”.

    Doesn’t it continually get back to being real?

  29. Hannah Jones says:

    Great post Pam
    You definitely write in the spirit that has me wanting to read more.
    I always make time to read your latest blog posts without even the slightest thought of pressing the delete key.

    Tonight, you inspired me to read my three year old the modern classic, “The Gruffalo” by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. When you read this extract you will understand why I make the connection between these two books:

    “He has terrible tusks and terrible claws, and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws.”

    Thank you

    Hannah

    p.s. If you, or any of your readers aren’t familiar with this book then you can experience some of the magic that entrances my boys here http://www.gruffalo.com

  30. A great post, Pam. I’ve just tweeted it (Awesome! “Truth, Clarity, Relevance” @pamslim packs full-blown communication course into a single blog post! http://tinyurl.com/dh7fsz WOW!)

    Thanks a lot, Pam :-)

  31. Could not agree more with you. Sales pages and affiliate pages need to cut the hype with too many testimonials bragging that they achieved this and that.

  32. Hey Pam,
    Love this post! You have been instrumental in urging me to speak from my soul on my blog and that’s the place where my best posts come from.

    My challenge is my thought that speaking from my soul is self-indulgent. What I’ve learned is that it’s not if my true intention is to share something I’ve learned. The best way to do that is to show people my “hell” so they can relate it to their own hell. This requires guts, but it’s so rewarding. Plus I can only tell so many stories about my dog although she’s been doing the cutest thing lately… ;-)

  33. chris Zydel says:

    Hi Pam,

    That was a fabulous post ! Brenda Ueland is one of my favorites as well as Maurice Sendak.

    And this was such a great reminder to keep it real, keep it simple and come from the heart when we are writing or communicating and in all our interactions with our customers, clients and business associates.

    It’s really about treating our connections with others as real relationships at all times which means being respectful and acting out of integrity and inviting everyone to the wild rumpus party. I mean, who could possibly resist that!

    Thanks again for your wisdom and wonderful business role modeling.

  34. Hi Pam — Just what was needed this morning. Thank you for taking the time to make a difference in my thought process today. Blessings…Susan

  35. Melissa says:

    Great post! You always deliver great content advice just when I need it:)

  36. George Daffin says:

    The story of the 300-slide presentation that didn’t mention the word “reorganization” is, I’m sorry to say, not atypical of large organizational doublespeak. I worked on a consulting project for IRS. 60% of the taxpayers who were audited — and who had been all the way through the audit process — did not realize they had been audited. The IRS calls an audit an “exam.” Hello George Orwell!

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