Here’s An Idea

Sometimes all you need to start writing a particular project is one image. One sound. One memory. That’s how my latest communique article began: with a memory.

“Think back to your elementary school years and that momentary flash of surprise you experienced when you saw your teacher at the grocery store. Or the movies. Or anywhere else that proved that teachers enjoyed a life out in the sunshine with the rest of humanity.”

I always wanted to do something with that attitude from my childhood. The rest of the article flowed from it. Have a look at it here and then leave a comment.


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Some Speaker Math

The average person can speak 125 to 150 words a minute comfortably. No rushing, taking plenty of breaths, pausing occasionally. But speaking is only half the process.

The other half is listening. Audience members can hear and comprehend as many as 700 words per minute. That means there are many opportunities for the listeners’ minds to wander. Checking Facebook. Answering emails. Daydreaming.  

I’ve seen articles on active listening as a way for the audience to combat the difference. But you can’t leave all the work to them. This is a speaker problem.

We speakers need to be aggressively interesting, fascinating even. We must keep the audience from paying attention to anything else. The simple fact is that we need to speak faster than the speed of distraction.

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Maximum Security

Writing recently about sending articles to magazines 20 years ago, I was reminded of an assignment I gave some students back then. This was in the days when I was teaching a Feature Writing course at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

The assignment was to go through the part of the process where you decide what magazine you want to write for. So I had them send off for writers’ guidelines, wherein the editors specify things like topics, word count, and pay rate. (These days, you can find them online) Along with the request, standard operating procedure was to include a self-addressed stamped envelope for the guidelines.

One student got his back a week or so later, but his return envelope from Playboy Magazine had been taped instead of sealed. An otherwise intelligent guy, this student’s idea of an SASE was a self-addressed sealed envelope.

I was surprised they had taken the trouble. Apparently, they’d felt sorry for him.

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What’s The Opposite of Electronic Surveillance?

I have written before about how teenagers and twenty-somethings act while sitting across from each other in public places such as coffee shops. Quite often each party’s gaze is riveted to one of their electronic devices, and not a word is exchanged. Not with each other, at any rate. 

Well, I saw it again the other day in the café at my Barnes & Noble, but this time with a twist. A man and woman sat at a table and each was deeply involved with their respective iPads. The only difference from the norm was that this man and woman were pushing 70. Hell, they could have been pulling it for all I know; I’m not a good judge of age. Suffice it to say they both had gray hair. 

It’s a widely known truism that the longer a couple is married, the less sparkling the conversation tends to be. The cliché has the man barricading himself behind the sports section of the newspaper while the woman reads her magazine. That’s yesterday’s version of ignoring someone. Not these folks. No analog ignoring for them, no sir. They had dived into the 21st century head first and were ignoring each other electronically.

It’s a known fact that older Americans have embraced technology. These two just weren’t showing any inclination to embrace each other.

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Personal Time Machines

Here’s a modified text of the latest video, just in case you prefer to read.

Do you have a time machine? I’ll bet you have a lot of them. One of mine is the engine from the vintage 1951 Lionel train my parents got me when I was around a year and a half old. Of course, it wasn’t vintage when they gave it to me. It was brand new.  It still works, and I set it up every year at Christmas. It always reminds me of setting up the train and the tree with my father. One sniff of the engine oil does the trick. Years ago that aroma sailed up my nose and lodged in my brain right beside Necco Wafers and Vicks Vapo Rub.

Understand, this is a personal time machine just for me. It wouldn’t work for you, but don’t worry. If you have a saver in the family, you have your own. A time machine is any personal item that has story energy attached to it. Connect with your time machines in order to connect with your memories and, in turn, your stories. Whether it’s working with me to collect your stories and photographs in your private printing, or a project of your own. Time machines work.

Another of my time machines is from a few years later. My 35 mm Nikon F camera takes me back to 1970 in Japanwhere I bought it. I don’t remember the city, whether it was Saseboor Yokosuka, but I remember the store. I was watching a clerk as I was browsing. A customer walked up to the counter and the clerk smiled and said “Hi.” When it was my turn, I learned that he was saying hai, which means yes in Japanese. I didn’t speak Japanese and he didn’t speak English, but somehow I managed to buy the camera, one of the better results of my years in the Navy.

Sounds are good memory triggers, too. That camera has a mechanical shutter that makes a healthy ker-chunk when I shoot. Compared to my iPhone, the wimpy noise of its dinky digital “shutter” sounds like someone stepping on a cricket.

Speaking of cameras, here’s a surprise: photographs don’t always work as time machines. Often they’re attached only to the event they commemorate and nothing else. Black-and-white snapshots are something else that remind me of my father. When he looked at one, the first thing he did was turn it over, look at the back, and most times grumble “No date.” He was big on knowing who was who and when.

So connect with your time machines. Look at them. Hold them. Listen to them. Smell them if you want to. And then relax and see where they take you.


View the video here at the website.

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The Unspoken Contract

Have you been watching The Firm? It’s the TV version of the John Grisham novel set ten years after the movie version that starred Tom Cruise. It’s on NBC and it isn’t bad as TV shows go. They’re interestingly structured stories, with each episode containing a continuing through-line as well as a stand-alone story. But they dropped the ball last week.

A cardinal rule of fiction is that nothing can happen that would yank the reader/ viewer out of the story. No anachronisms, no factual errors, and certainly nothing boneheadedly stupid. Oh well…

Here’s what happened. (Don’t worry; no spoilers.) The brother of the main character, a private investigator working for his lawyer brother, finds a piece of paper that had been run through a cross-cut shredder. You know– the kind that doesn’t cut the document into long strips. Not confetti, just shorter strips. He says that he’s good at puzzles and will put it back together. Between him and his girlfriend, they reassemble the entire document and tape it together.

Guess what: They didn’t need to.

There were four names taking up four lines in the upper left corner of the printout, which probably amounted to two square inches of space. The rest of the paper was completely blank. Why the hell did they take the time to reassemble the whole thing when putting together just the names would have taken no more than two or three minutes?

From a storytelling standpoint, there was a structural need to draw out the time between when they found the shredded printout and when they found the four names. Otherwise, the clue would have arrived too early and that story arc would have ended too soon. But the writers (there were two credited for this episode) needed to find a better way to accomplish that, and, sadly, they didn’t. Bonehead move. I actually felt sorry for the actors because the writers made them look like fools. But ultimately, it was the writers who looked foolish.

If you’re watching a story on screen or reading one in a book and something happens that makes you think about the writer, said writer has broken the slender thread that suspends your disbelief. That’s like breaking a contract, and you, the reader/viewer,  have every right to be upset. You’ve invested your time and (probably) money in this story, and you deserve a good return on your investment.

The relationship between writer and reader has long been described as an unspoken contract. The writer agrees to lie to the reader and the reader agrees to believe it. You see, the reader knows intellectually that what’s on the page never actually happened. It’s the writer’s job to keep that disbelief suspended by not doing something to make the characters look like idiots and pull the reader out of the story. What’s the word? Oh, yeah–


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I Need An App

Is there an app for remembering to turn off your call forwarding when you get back to the office? Here’s what happened.

Yesterday morning, I’m in my downstairs office and I get an e-mail about a lead. It sounded interesting, so I call the number from the office phone and the receptionist puts me through to voicemail. I leave a message with my number and I go back to work.

Ten minutes later, the business line starts to ring, and then cuts off immediately. And I hear my cellphone ringing. Upstairs. Egad! I hadn’t turned the call forwarding off from the day before.

Wanting to maintain the illusion of professionalism, I charge out of my chair, race up the steps, stumble on the steps, grab the railing, get to the top, and make the hard left down the hall and into the living room. I manage to get to the phone just before it goes to voicemail. I hope I sounded normal and not like I had just pulled several muscles that usually don’t have that kind of strain put on them. I made it and we had a productive conversation.

Should I look for a liniment app or just work out more often?


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Humor: Not Everyone Gets The Funny

Humor is one of the most subjective topics there is. One person’s knee-slapper is someone else’s furrowed brow. Want a couple examples? Thought you might.

I offer two written items, one from my Twitter feed and the other from my Facebook page. A very pleasant husband and wife team of sales specialists and authors of the book “Selling Naked on the Phone” tweeted me asking for my favorite sales tip. I made my answer a two-parter. For communication: Make sure your communications are phrased and spelled properly because you never know who’s paying attention. For Selling Naked on the Phone: Avoid wicker.

For my trouble, I got a question back from them: What’s wicker?

I had the same problem on Facebook.

A “humorist” posted the question while promoting her video, “Does anyone have back pain?” My comment: “Nope, I’m all caught up.” Their response: “???” This surprised me because one of the characteristics of a humorist is being able to look at things from a different angle. This “humorist” wasn’t being very flexible.

Aside: Because of her question marks, I broke one of my cardinal rules and explained the joke. I commented, “Back taxes. Back alimony. A little joke.” Haven’t heard from her since.

If a statement is funny, it should get laughs whether it’s written or spoken. But just as there will always be someone who doesn’t get the joke in the form of the spoken word, the same is true in writing. And I understand that.

But wicker? Really?


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Admit To Being A Writer

As time goes by, I’m less astounded at the number of people who write who don’t see themselves as writers. But I’m still moderately surprised. Is there a stigma I’m not aware of? Or is it the classic image?

You know what it is. I just trotted it out again in a recent article, but here it is in a nutshell. People think that in order to qualify for writer status, they have to be this solitary soul in a cold water walk-up shivering in a ratty bathrobe while hunched over an antiquated Underwood at 3:00 in the morning, pecking out the great American novel with an overflowing ashtray at one hand and a jelly glass of rotgut hooch at the other. Not true. The bathrobe is optional.

I’m joshing, of course, but those of you who give presentations, speak at Rotary luncheons, or give keynotes at conferences are writers. Unless you farm out the task to someone else — and I really doubt you do that — you are the creator of your work. And that means you wrote it.

You might not consider yourself a writer, but you do write. Get over it.

Read more about being a writer here. Turns out it’s not as solitary as you think.

One of my favorite topics to speak about is indeed writing. If your group or organization needs a speaker, call or send an e-mail. I could talk about writing for days, but I’ve been known to keep it as short as 30 minutes.

Contact me.


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Information For Information’s Sake?

I just learned something from Parade Magazine.

For the uninitiated, Parade is one of those supplements to the Sunday paper that most people ignore. Like the dimensions of the newspaper it’s tucked into, it has shrunk over the years. In fact, if it gets much smaller, they’ll have to change the name to Single File. I look at it out of habit and rarely, if ever, read an article. But I do read “Ask Marilyn.”

Marilyn Vos Savant is very smart and usually has something interesting in her column. Often, though, the entries have to do with impenetrable number puzzles: If a train leaves Pittsburgh at 10:00 traveling 60 MPH and another train leaves Boston at 10:15 traveling at 50 MPH, how many oranges will fit on a Frisbee? I leave them alone. But today was different.

The question a reader asked was if you wrapped a 25,000-mile-long band snugly around the Earth (assuming a flat Earth) and then spliced an additional 50 feet to the length of the band, would you be able to fit your finger under the band? The answer is yes, and then some. Turns out adding 50 feet to the band would result in the band floating eight feet from the surface of the planet.

Even more interesting, adding 50 feet to a band surrounding any round object, from a planet to an orange, will result in the same eight-foot distance from the surface. Golf ball, basketball, hot air balloon, Mars: add fifty feet, same eight foot gap.

The question is to what use do I put this nugget of info? This was probably it.

Any suggestions?


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