First Rule of Good Writing: It’s Not about You

(Editor’s note: This is excerpted from Tom Pfeifer’s upcoming book, Write It, Speak It.)

Audience listening to a speaker in a meeting roomThe first rule of all good writing is, “It’s not about you. It’s about them.” There is a school of thought that if you write what you like, others will like it too. To a certain point I agree, because if the topic doesn’t interest you, that lack of interest will come through to your audience. But writing for yourself only takes you so far.

People today have the ability to target just what interests them and shut out the rest. In such a world of targeted expectations, if you want others to read your prose or come to hear you speak, you need to know what interests them. More importantly, you need to know why they are interested in reading your prose or coming to hear you speak. Think: “What’s in it for them?” Because I guarantee you, they’re thinking: “What’s in it for me?”

I began my professional writing career as a journalist. My job was to accurately convey an event to those who could not be there. I can hear the anti-journalists snickering. And yes, I have read stories about a meeting I attended and wondered if the journalist was at the same meeting. But by and large, it was my job to accurately describe the meeting or event. I was my readers’ eyes and ears, as most journalists try to be. As long as I focused on my readers and what was in it for them, I wrote accurate, well-rounded stories. I also tried to make the stories as entertaining and interesting as possible, but accuracy came first. That’s why readers read my stories. That’s what was in it for them.

And because of that, I was well-respected in my community—respected enough that a Republican congressman later hired that liberal journalist as his communications director. Then, my audience became the congressman’s constituents, and I wrote what was in it for them through my boss’s eyes. Whether I was writing a speech, a newsletter, a press release, a tweet, or any other communication, the focus was always first and foremost on what was in it for the constituents.

It’s the same whether you are writing for a reader or a listener. Sheryl Roush, an international speaker from San Diego, broadens her reach—and income—by providing local public speaking workshops in conjunction with Toastmasters conventions. At the end of her workshops, Sheryl asks her audience for golden nuggets—the one thing each audience member will take away from the workshop and implement in his or her own public speaking repertoire.

At one workshop, my golden nugget was: It’s not about you, the speaker. It’s about the audience.

By then, I was not only writing speeches but delivering. I always wrote speeches with the audience in mind, but I wasn’t delivering them with the audience in mind. Now I repeat to myself before I write and before I speak: It’s about you, not me. The spotlight is on you. Not me. You’re here to learn something. Or to be entertained. And I can give that to you. I want to give that to you. Because I’m a giver. And nothing makes me feel better than to give to people.

As humans, we’re wired that way, to give. It’s how we evolved and survived. Without cooperation, without caring for our children and our elderly, without making sure that all made it through the winter, we would have died out as a species long ago. Scientists have found centers in the brain that are stimulated when we give. It literally makes us feel good to help others. So if you put yourself in the mindset—without getting haughty about it—that your purpose is to give to your audience, your writing will be more focused. On stage, the butterflies won’t go away, but they will fly in formation.

This is how important knowing your audience is to writing. Novelist Kip Langello wrote nine novels that didn’t sell. Then Langello created Peggy, a fictional but precise reader. Everything he wrote, he wrote for Peggy. Would she laugh here? Would this frighten her? Would she curl up with her husband at this turn of events? The next book Langello wrote sold for six figures. Peggy approved.

So think about what’s in it for your audience. Are they coming to hear you speak to be entertained? Are they coming to hear you speak to be informed? Are they coming to hear you speak to be inspired? What do they look like? What are they wearing? What do they do for a living? Are they happy at work? What’s in it for them will dictate the form, the structure, and the tone of your speech.

Your audience isn’t composed of fictional characters. They are real people. You can find out about them. Professional speakers discover all they can about the real, living, breathing people who will be in an audience before they sit down to write. Before giving workshops, at the very least, I send out a questionnaire to assess my audience’s level of knowledge about the subject and to discover their most burning questions. Then I can tailor my presentation to their wants, needs, and expectations. At the event, I also try to talk with the attendees before I speak and incorporate what’s appropriate into my presentation.

After all, it’s all about them.


 

Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

Coffee and Conversation

 

TBT: It’s the sauce that makes the message tasty

(Editor’s note: This was first published on Jan. 1, 2013.)

We were at lunch, and my friend Ms. B was describing her nonprofit’s latest communications failure. I had dipped my spring roll into the bowl of sweet sauce and was trying not to drip the red sauce onto my green tie.spring_roll

Ms. B’s organization services people with various educational backgrounds. They are not unintelligent people, but unlike Ms. B, they do not have a PhD in administrative healthcare, either. They also do not work in government relations, which requires Ms. B to prepare detailed position papers about healthcare that only those with a healthcare background—or who legislate on health issues—could comprehend. Ms. B prepares dry material, like a spring roll without the sweet sauce.

The vast majority of the people her organization services certainly could not digest her reports. And Ms. B is not trained to translate her research into a language those stakeholders could absorb.

And therein lies the stain. Ms. B’s organization decided its researchers must blog, tweet, and otherwise spread their reports via social media. No matter that they are not trained in social media. No matter that they haven’t been trained to synthesize their reports into a format understandable by the general public. Just do it, they’ve been told.

The organization has a communications team. But they are not to be involved in this endeavor.

Say what? The sweet sauce is tipping over! Quick, get a napkin! Too late. Ms. B’s nonprofit just poured sauce on its tie.

Not incorporating the communications team in a communications plan is a recipe for failure. Communicators take the complex, simplify it accurately, and disseminate it with the greatest chance of positive impact. It’s a skill set, an acquired taste. Successful organizations integrate the communications team into every aspect of the organization. A successful organization assigns members of the communication team to the researchers so they can work together to spread the word.

Communicators are the sauce that makes the message tasty. They are effective on the spring roll. They’re wasted on the tie.


Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

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Complete Your Goals by Jan. 1 and Your Resolutions Are Complete

The blogosphere is inundated right now with “How to Keep Your Resolutions” tutorials and “10 Easy Goal-setting Tips,” so I won’t bore you with yet another.

White 2016 hanging by stings on a blue backgroundInstead, let’s celebrate Jan. 1 as the day of firsts. Anyone remember the first time Jan. 1 was celebrated as the New Year? They say if you remember, you weren’t really there. Who remembers the first bowling match recorded in the United States? It happened on a Jan. 1. Or the first public baths opening in the United States, which also happened on a Jan. 1?

Each of these were goals set by someone and were met on the first day of the year. Imagine accomplishing your goals on Jan. 1. You would have another 364 days before you had to do anything else!

Julius Caesar and his Roman legions were the first to peg New Year’s celebrations on Jan. 1. (See, I told you you weren’t really there.) Prior to 45 B.C., when the Julian calendar went into effect, calendars were created along the lunatic theory. The universe doesn’t adhere to human math, however. With a lunar month taking 29.53059 days—or 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 2.8 seconds—many adjustments had to be made to keep the calendar in check with the seasons. So Caesar decided to simplify things and devise a calendar on the solar year. The solar year also doesn’t conform to human time-keeping, so every four years another day had to be added to make up for the calculated 365¼ days a solar year contains.

Unfortunately for Caesar, the solar year isn’t 365¼ days, it’s 365.242199 days. By the 16th century, the calendar was all out of whack again. So Pope Gregory XIII commissioned a new calendar—the Gregorian calendar—to put us back on celestial track. It was implemented in 1582 and eliminates three of four centennial leap years to make up for the 11 minutes lost each year by universal design.

Bowling also had its ups and downs during the centuries. Bowling is said to have originated in Germany in 300 A.D. as a sin-absolving ritual. But then it became so addictive and so sinful on its own that English Kings Edward III and Henry VIII had to ban the sport to keep their subjects focused on the tasks at hand.

A year after the first recorded bowling match at New York’s Knickerbockers on Jan. 1, 1840, several U.S states also banned the sport due to gambling and racketeering. At that time, the sport sported nine pins. Our now familiar 10-pin game was instituted to circumvent those state laws. You gotta love American ingenuity.

There are no laws requiring one to take a bath, something I repeatedly tried to educate my mom on as a boy. Concerned that the poor refuse were stinking up the place, and convinced that cleanliness was as much a moral issue as a health issue, do-gooders made several attempts to open public bathhouses throughout the 19th century. On Jan. 1, 1852, the first public bathhouse reportedly opened in New York City. Unfortunately, it was a washout and the first successful U.S. bathhouse didn’t open until 1891, also in New York City.

Which brings us to Jan. 1, 2016. To celebrate this auspicious day, I will eat a Caesar salad, bellow out some Gregorian chants, bowl some gutter balls, and perhaps bathe. My goals complete, I will sleep until 2017.

Happy New Year!

Sources:

January 1 Events in History. Accessed December 31, 2015. http://www.brainyhistory.com/days/january_1.html.

Crockett, Zachary. “The Rise and Fall of Professional Bowling.” Priceonomics. March 21, 2014. Accessed December 31, 2015. http://priceonomics.com/the-rise-and-fall-of-professional-bowling/.

“Exactly How Long Is a Lunar month?” Old Farmer’s Almanac. Accessed December 31, 2015. http://www.almanac.com/fact/exactly-how-long-is-a-lunar-monthr.

Glassberg, David. “The Public Bath Movement in America.” Journals@KU. Accessed December 31, 2015. https://journals.ku.edu/index.php/amerstud/article/viewFile/2244/2203.

“New Year’s Day.” History.com. Accessed December 31, 2015. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/new-years-day.


Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

Save the Date

Solution elusive for tax small businesses love to hate

There is little more despised in the Virginia small business community than BPOL (Virginia’s business, professional, and occupational license tax). Everyone agrees it needs to be eliminated or modified. Getting there, however, has proven elusive.

tax keys Can Stock Photo Inc.  bradcalkinsThat contempt was evident during the first panel discussion at the 2015 Virginia Small Business Summit, conducted at The Hilton in Springfield on Nov. 20, where beating on BPOL was the sport of choice. Virginia Delegate Chris Head (R-Roanoke), chairman of the Virginia General Assembly Business Development Caucus, said the Springfield gathering was the nineteenth time the caucus had led a discussion on improving Virginia’s business climate and the nineteenth time BPOL took center ring.

BPOL was instituted to pay off Virginia’s share of War of 1812 debts, which one has to assume have been paid by now. It taxes Virginia businesses on gross receipts. Not profit, but gross receipts. The rate varies with type of industry, but for tight-margin businesses their tax can be more than their profit. BPOL taxes are administered by counties and cities. Not all counties and cities administer the tax and for those that do, the rates vary greatly.

For example, Fairfax County taxes businesses a flat rate BPOL tax until gross receipts hit $100,000, at which point the percentages kick in. Prince William County starts its BPOL taxation when gross receipts hit $250,000, and county supervisors voted in November to raise that threshold to $300,000 in 2016.

According to the Washington Post, Fairfax County collects about $147 million in BPOL taxes annually. That’s about 3.8% of the county’s annual operating budget. Arlington collects about $50 million annually, or about 3.5% of its annual budget. In contrast, PotomacLocal pegs Prince William County’s BPOL annual income at $26.5 million, or 0.1% of its operating budget.

That may not seem like a lot, but with many counties facing budget shortfalls, every little bit counts. Even BPOL-haters agree to knock out BPOL something must replace it. There is no easy fix, however.

Both Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli during their 2013 race for governor said they would study ways to eliminate BPOL as well as the Merchants Capital (MC) tax, and Machinery and Tool (M&T) tax—two other taxes loathed by the small business community. McAuliffe won in a near draw. He has two more years to make something happen.

McAuliffe recently asked his Secretary of Finance to take a look at Virginia’s tax structure with an eye toward recommending ways to make it more business friendly. The request was vague enough to engender blank stares in the business community.

The Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy entered the fray in 2012 with a report it said would eliminate BPOL, MC, and M&T taxes and yet be revenue neutral.

In September, the institute published an update that included 23 scenarios. In a letter to this year’s political candidates, the institute said each scenario has the same basic criteria behind them:

  • Tens of thousands of jobs are created
  • Income taxes are reduced or specific brackets eliminated and/or in some of the 23 scenarios the grocery tax is also eliminated
  • This overall plan is revenue neutral
  • The impact of BPOL, M&T, and MC taxes are eliminated
  • No new business-to-business taxes are applied
  • The localities that collect these three taxes are kept whole
  • The sales tax is broadened to services not now liable for collecting it except there is no sales tax on any health care services, just as is the case today

Although the institute’s first report was issued three years ago and the current rendition is backed by the Virginia Manufacturers Association, the Virginia NFIB, and the Virginia Retail Association, neither Delegate Head nor Delegate Vivian Watts (D-Annandale) reacted when the plan was raised at the summit. (Watts is not a member of the caucus but was at the summit because she represents the area.) Neither did either delegate respond by post time to requests made Wednesday afternoon for follow-up comments.

Other organizations, of course, have touted alternatives as well. For example, the Virginia Retail Federation commissioned its own study in 2009. It concluded:

“Improvements can be made to the current BPOL tax system to make it more consistent and uniformly applied across localities. Special treatment of BPOL taxes should be re-evaluated particularly regarding industry exemptions. Another alternative is to assess BPOL taxes based on profits rather than businesses’ gross receipts.

“With this approach, one rate is applied for all businesses. BPOL tax reform can also be framed under the re-evaluation of the overall tax structure of Virginia. Since sales taxes are also based on the gross receipts, it is possible to remove the BPOL tax, while broadening the current sales tax to construction, finance, real estate, and professional service industries.”

Watts noted at the summit that the issue is complicated by the fact that county tax structures were put in place in the 1700s and are real-estate-tax-based.

Despite it being the nineteenth time BPOL had been raised in a caucus panel discussion, only one BPOL-related measure was introduced by a caucus member in 2015. The bill would have eliminated double-taxation of contractors and subcontractors on gross receipts, allowing contractors to subtract subcontractor payments from its liabilities. That bill failed in committee.

While the War of 1812 ended in less than three years, this war has no end in sight. The brawl, however, will continue.


Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

Lessons Learned from Losing

TILogoI competed in the Toastmasters International District 27 Humorous Speech Contest finals last week. The audience loved my speech. The judges didn’t.

I didn’t even place.

To get to the finals, I had to win at the club, area, and division levels. I actually didn’t win at the club level. I didn’t lose either. I just had no competition. But I did win the area and division contests. I was a champ! In the two weeks between the division contest and the finals at the district level, 2013 Humorous Speech Champion Arti Kumari coached me on staging techniques. I presented my speech and received feedback on it at five different Toastmasters clubs. I rehearsed every day.

Three and half years ago you would not have found me on stage giving a coherent speech. My professional career included being a speechwriter, but I didn’t deliver them. I joined Toastmasters International in March of 2012 to overcome America’s No. 1 fear—public speaking before launching my entrepreneurial career. After losing in my first club-level speech competition that first year, fellow Toastmaster Cris Birch told me: “You write a good speech. Now you have to learn how to deliver one.”

Public speaking is an art and a craft, much like writing or any other creative process. You get better by doing. You lose your edge when you don’t. Most Toastmasters clubs near me meet once or twice a month for 60 to 90 minutes. The first club I joined meets every week for two hours. I didn’t plan it that way. But I needed to find a club close to home that met on Saturdays. GUTS (Get Up to Speak) fit that bill.

When I was called up to do my first one- to two-minute impromptu speech called Table Topics, I said a few words, mumbled, “My brain just froze,” and stumbled to my seat, my entire body shaking and my head pulsating as if it was about to explode. I think I managed to get through my first prepared speech OK, but that’s because I read it. The first time I delivered a prepared speech without notes, I mumbled, “My brain just froze” a minute or two into the speech. But I stood my ground and managed to finish. I sat down, my body shaking and my head pulsating.

Why do I keep going back? Because of the evaluations. Every speech is evaluated by a fellow Toastmaster. You’re told what went well and given suggestions “to make it even better.” Why do I keep going back? Because polished speakers like Distinguished Toastmaster Paul White told me of their first horrifying experiences. Why did I join two other clubs? Because I’m a glutton for punishment. Failure is an option. But it’s OK to fail at Toastmasters. I now give presentations to outside groups. I try them out at Toastmasters first. The feedback always makes them better. I’d rather fail at Toastmasters than on the road.

Before this contest season, I had never placed higher than second place at the club level. I managed to compete in an area contest last year—but only because the first-place GUTS winner couldn’t make it. I came in second.

This year I made it to the finals after accepting two first-place trophies. I failed to achieve glory at district, but I didn’t fail to become a more polished speaker. I’ve learned how to deliver a good speech, Cris. Thank you and all my fellow Toastmasters for your support along the way. I’m already writing a speech for the next competition. I may not win. But I most certainly will not lose.

Here’s the speech:


Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

’Tis the Season to Draw Oxford Commas on Starbucks Cups

I was going to write about Starbucks cups this week, but it’s not controversial enough. Instead, I bring you another rant on the Oxford comma.

Comma being held with fingertips against a blue sky with light wispy cloudsPerhaps you still are unaware of the Great Oxford Comma Controversy. Among grammar geeks, the Oxford comma divide is only overshadowed by arguments over the dreaded semicolon. Think Capitol Hill Republicans and Democrats. Republicans are pro-Oxford comma. Democrats believe it should be aborted. That’s the divide here.

At this point, you may be scratching your head, saying, “What’s an Oxford comma?” You’ve seen it; you probably even have an opinion on it. You’ve just never heard it named before. So let’s define it:

In a series of three or more listed items, the Oxford comma is used before the word “and,” “or,” or another conjunction. In the sentence, “He was tall, muscular, and a musician,” we have the Oxford comma between “muscular” and “and.” Without the Oxford comma, you would write it “tall, muscular and a musician.”

Who the heck cares, right?

Well, in certain instances, the Oxford comma does makes a difference. Take the sentence: “I was at the show with my parents, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.”

I know, right? That would be one ugly kid!

But if you insert the Oxford comma after Clinton—which he would thoroughly enjoy, by the way—then the emphasis changes. “I was at the show with my parents, Bill Clinton, and Oprah Winfrey.” Four people, not two.

That’s why Oxford zealots, which include the founder of the Oxford comma—the Oxford University Press—insist on using it in any list of three or more. Others say it’s unnecessary except to make the ambiguous clear. By the way, Oxford comma detractors include Oxford University, of which Oxford University Press is a part. In fact, in all of Great Britain, only the Oxford University Press insists on using the Oxford comma.

Blimey!

Green commas drawn on a Starbucks cupHere in the United States, however, we’re absolutely puritanical about using it. The Chicago Manual of Style, The Elements of Style, and the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual all insist on using the Oxford comma. It’s the communistic U.S. media that drops it: The Associated Press, the New York Times, and the Economist, for example.

Personally, I’m among those who don’t care if you use it or not. I’m an Oxford comma agnostic. When writing for the media, I don’t use it. When writing for anyone else, I generally do. The only caveat here is that in any particular piece of writing, use it or don’t use it consistently. Don’t mix and match. Pick a side and stick to your guns, even if you have to switch sides later. This country was founded on the principle that I’m right and you’re wrong. Honor that principle and be consistent in the use of a British comma that most of Britain doesn’t use.

That’s my humble opinion and I’m sticking to it. Now excuse me while I draw Christmas commas on my Starbucks cup.


Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

A 6,000-mile First Step to Saving Veterans from Suicide

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu is widely quoted as saying.

Foundation executives Summer Watson and Shelia Kirkbride pose outside American Legion Post 1 in Denver, Colorado, with two members of the post.

Warrior Research Foundation executives Summer Watson, far left, and Shelia Kirkbride, far right, visited American Legion Post 1 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo courtesy of Warrior Research Foundation.)

What if your first step is a 6,000-mile cross-country round trip to meet with military, veterans, and their families to put faces on the suicide epidemic?

That’s the philosophy behind the Drive for Life Veteran Suicide Awareness Campaign recently kicked off by Warrior Research Foundation executives Shelia Kirkbride and Summer Watson. The duo drove from their base outside the nation’s capital to San Francisco and back on a 10-day whirlwind tour of bases and veteran halls. Along the way, they met with those who wore the uniform and their families and talked about their needs and opportunities. (Full disclosure: the foundation is a client, though they are not paying me to write this column.)

Shelia and Summer returned on Monday energized to keep the drive alive.

“Just making those connections along the way was very uplifting,” Summer said.

Summer described the people they met on the road as “very embracing.” There will be follow-ups, not only with those met on the road, but with people who commented on the foundation’s Facebook posts from towns and cities along the way, and more local warriors and their families.

As reflected in its name, Warrior Research Foundation is a research organization. Its mission is to understand problems faced by our military and veterans through quantitative and qualitative analysis and find solutions to those problems. The Drive for Life campaign is an attempt to put a qualitative face on the numbers.

The numbers are staggering. One in two veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars say they know a fellow service member who attempted or committed suicide, a Washington Post-Kaiser Health poll found. In addition, a recent study published in the Psychiatric Services Journal indicates a small number of studies—limited to veterans who used services provided by the Veterans Health Administration—observed a 42 to 66 percent increase in the risk of suicide between 2000 and 2007, compared with the general U.S. population. This study also found that between the years of 2000 and 2010, the female veteran suicide rate increased 40 percent.

Help is certainly needed. Thankfully, there are those willing to take the journey.

Michael Pritchard faces camera with Shelia Kirkbride and Summer Watson opposite, as they sit around an outside table discussing veterans issues.

Warrior Research Foundation executives Shelia Kirkbride and Summer Watson met with stand-up comedian, keynote speaker, and youth motivator Michael Pritchard, who is lending his name and energy to the project. (Photo courtesy of Warrior Research Foundation.)

In San Francisco, Shelia and Summer met with stand-up comedian, keynote speaker, and youth motivator Michael Pritchard, who is lending his name and energy to the project. Photographer and documentary filmmaker Steve Gatlin filmed Michael’s discussion with Shelia and Summer, as well as other meetings the foundation executives had around the Bay Area. Look for a Drive for Life promotional video coming soon to a computer near you.

Shelia and Summer have completed the first step of the journey. A very big first step. They are committed to seeing the journey through.

“If anyone asks if we’d go across the country for our veterans, we can say we did,” Shelia told Summer on the final leg of the trip.

“We’ll go as far as we need to go to help our military, veterans, and their families,” Summer added.

Wednesday is Veterans Day. Celebrate it in part by familiarizing yourself with the Warrior Research Foundation’s focus on helping our veterans obtain the services they need. Then, take the next step and make a donation if you can. And, by all means, like the Warrior Research Foundation Facebook page.

To those who wore the uniform, we thank you for your service.


Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

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