What’s in a Word: Sandy Pulls Me Back to Earth

Outside Our Door, Ridgewood, Queens

I’m writing this post from my home office in southwestern Queens, where we’ve been lucky. A couple of uprooted and scarily teetering trees on the street, spotty cell phone service and a complete breakdown of the transportation we rely on to get to school and work—but other than that, my family has survived Superstorm Sandy relatively unscathed.

We’ve barely left the house between Sunday (when we made a critical run to Blockbuster) and this morning—Wednesday–when I unearthed the car to drive my husband to work (normally an easy subway ride). And, since we’ve had power the whole time, we’ve listened to a lot of radio, watched some TV and surfed—and surfed again—on the web. We’ve picked up messages from friends in lower Manhattan as, one by one, they reported power outages that we now know may take days or longer to fix. The people I’ve spoken to, images I’ve seen and stories I’ve heard remind me what the word “disaster” really means.

I say this because “disaster” happens to be a word I throw around a lot. I look around one of my kids’ rooms—or my office—and say, “This place is a disaster!” I get stuck in rush-hour traffic and cry, “What a disaster!” My internet goes down and I howl, “It’s a disaster!”

Needless to say, none of these situations are disastrous. My father grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and owned a house in a neighboring town until just a few years ago. Looking at footage of splintered chunks of the city’s famous boardwalk floating down city streets, I saw disaster.

And so, for a brief while now, I’ll have a new appreciation for this particular bit of hyperbole. The meaning and power of words is always grounded in the reality that those words are meant to describe. It’s good to be reminded of that sometimes.

To hearken back to a much-worse disaster, in terms of lives lost and world-wide reverberations, my family lived close to lower Manhattan on 9/11—we were on East 20th Street, which was much farther from the towers than the homes of many of our friends, but close enough to feel personally affected. One of the things that stood out for me at the time was the noise of sirens, and the sight of fire trucks roaring through the streets. (It contrasted, especially, with an otherwise eerie quiet on the ground and in the skies.)

My children were very young then and a few weeks after the attack we were (coincidentally) visiting Atlantic City. We were sitting in a diner when a fire truck pulled up in front. My immediate reaction was to reach for the kids. I wanted to somehow shield them from the sight of the truck, which in the moment I associated simply with menace. I remember thinking how shocking it was that not long ago parents like me would point out fire trucks to children as objects of excitement and even fun.

What does this have to do with words? It’s something to do with the slippery nature of meaning. An image that is filled with positive connotations (at least from a kid’s perspective) can change in a matter of minutes to a symbol of something adult and grave–something to protect our children from.

If I had come across a fire truck-related metaphor in those early days after 9/11, it likely would have affected me very differently from the way the author intended: changed, for the moment at least, from a candy-colored emblem of heroism to an omen of disaster.

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Just Call Me The Woman With the Hammer

You know the saying, “To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail?” It came to mind last week when I was at the Working Mother Work Life Congress, an annual conference built around the release of the magazine’s  famous “100 Best Companies” list. Sure, people were there to talk about work-life, but as a communications professional, everything I heard seemed to be about communication.

It’s not surprising, really, because ultimately a lot of what makes work engaging and do-able for people who have lives outside of it comes down to good communication. Since it’s National Work and Family Month, let me show you what I mean:

When keynote speaker Beverly Kaye, Founder and Co-CEO of Career Systems International, spoke about employee development, a lot of what she had to say was a case for more communication.  Kaye was referring to spoken communication between managers and those they manage, but many of her comments could also apply to the ways companies communicate to employees, in general (or don’t).

Take her “five myths” that prevent managers from talking with employees about their careers. At least three of these (paraphrased below) are widely used by senior leaders in companies as an excuse for not sharing crucial information with employees:

  • If I open the discussion, it will be a Pandora’s Box. (The truth is, your employees are talking about it already. You’re not releasing anything into the world that isn’t already there. You’re just bringing it out into the open and providing yourself with a chance for input.)
  • Employees own their own careers—it’s not my job to give them the answers. (The truth is, employees don’t generally expect definitive answers—they just want support and information.)
  • I can’t deliver on their desire to move up the career ladder, so talking about it will just lead to disappointment. (The truth is, not everybody aspires to move up. Employees want jobs they care about—“meaning is the new money,” as Kaye says. Translated to more general employee communications: don’t second guess what your audience wants to hear. Be open in what you say and be open to hearing what they say, too—what they want and need might surprise you.)

In a break-out session, Suzanne Vickberg, Senior Manager for Inclusion at Deloitte, spoke about data forensics—specifically, how to use data about your workforce to tell a story that demonstrates the value of work-life programs to leadership. Here (again paraphrased) are some of the points she made:

  • Most companies already collect data about their employees. By connecting these data in thoughtful ways, you can tell a strong story. For example, connect data from last year’s talent survey to current attrition rates—how do what employees said about their work-life balance correlate with whether they’re still with the company a year later? Through an analysis like this, Vickberg’s team was able to show leadership at Deloitte that addressing employee concerns about work-life fit had six times the impact on retention as addressing concerns about pay.
  • Numbers don’t mean much in isolation. Find ways to bring them to life. By way of example, Vickberg  showed a chart that used proportionately-sized dots to illustrate the dramatic difference in effect on turnover among a variety of factors. A small thing—but a big effect on communication.
  • Speak the language of your audience. For example, if you’re reporting to leadership in finance, talk about the relative cost to the business of providing work-life policies and programs and losing employees.
  • Understand what will and will not be heard. If you are addressing the problem of workload, recommendations that workload simply be reduced are unlikely to go very far. But you can probably use the same data to show how much better employees are able to manage their workload when they have control over where and when that work gets done.
  • Respect your data—it might not always tell the story you expect it to tell, but chances are it does have something to say.

Finally, keynote speaker Patrick O’Neill, President of Extraordinary Conversations, introduced the “Rule of 13.” Describing the vital role clear communications play in strong leadership, O’Neill said leaders should be able to state the vision behind any initiative in 13 words or less—and the statement should be “understandable to your teenager.”

For example? There’s the head of an entertainment company whose 12 words–“One of every five CDs sold will be sold in our stores”—helped take his company from $28 million to $200 million in three years.

There’s the Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation, which laid it on the line in 5: “Conquering cancer in our lifetime.” (Admittedly, this begs the question: “whose lifetime?)

And then there’s another guy you might have heard about, who said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade.”

Hmmm.. wonder how that one turned out?

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Exercising Your Metaphor Muscle

My niece recently spent a few weeks in South Korea, sending home evocative missives about her travels. In one email, she likened a short, uncomfortable flight she took to an island to being shot out of a slingshot. She kept the metaphor alive paragraphs later, when she described the return trip: “it was sad to leave, but we sling-shotted back to Seoul…” Can anyone fail to imagine what that flight felt like?

Metaphors are not just the tools of novelists and poets. They’re an essential part of every writer’s toolkit. And they have magical powers:

  • Metaphors have the power to take the abstract and make it concrete. Think of them as the verbal equivalent of a really good diagram.
  • Metaphors can be a kind of shorthand. A metaphorical sentence, phrase or single word can fill in for a paragraph or more of description.
  • Best of all, metaphors are sticky. When done well, they seem to hang around in your head a whole lot longer than straightforward information.

I should explain that when I say “metaphor” I’m using the term loosely, to encompass similes, as well. Remember the difference? Metaphors imply a comparison, without saying it outright, as in: “All the world’s a stage.” Similes use “like” or “as” to make the comparison explicit, as in “My love is like a red, red rose.” But for our purposes, as workplace communicators, they both come down to the same thing: making information more accessible—getting our point across.

One of the e-newsletters I subscribe to is called “The Metaphor Minute,”  from sales consultant Anne Miller. Each monthly issue promotes the use of metaphor in communications—especially business communications. Among other things, Miller collects and shares examples of ways people have aced presentations and clinched sales simply by harnessing the power of metaphor. I always read these examples, as well as pay close attention to metaphors whenever and wherever I come across them, because I’ve discovered that making a good metaphor isn’t easy. It’s especially hard in informational communications, where extravagant metaphors can be out of place. (It’s harder to create a more subdued, natural-sounding metaphor.) Nonetheless, it’s a skill that can be developed with practice. I know this because I’ve found the more I write, the more metaphors pop, unbidden, into my head.

If metaphors aren’t yet popping into your head, here’s how I’d go about hunting them down:

  • Start by pinpointing the exact feeling, situation, characteristic, etc., you want to compare to something else.
  • Next make a list of everything you can think of that represents the same feeling, situation or characteristic. Trying to capture “fast?” Make a list of things that go fast: cheetahs, sports cars, rockets, light… Trying to capture “high-quality?” Rolls Royce, Rembrandt, Stradivarius… Trying to make a comparison? List some like-minded comparisons: McDonald’s vs. Lutece; Big Wheels vs. a racing bike; Manhattan, Kansas vs. Manhattan, New York.
  • Take it a step further. For more original metaphors, stretch the comparison to things that go fast only sometimes: a kid chasing an ice cream truck; a mouse fleeing a cat; a horse in the Kentucky Derby. For corporate prose, you may end up backing down from these more elaborate phrasings, but it’s still a good way to exercise your metaphor-finding muscle.
  • Eliminate the clichés. Metaphors repeated too often become clichés and clichés lose most—if not all—of their magical powers. (Does anyone think “fruit-filled pastry” when they hear “easy as pie?”)
  • Finally—and this holds especially true for informational communications—see if you can tamp down the metaphor into a simple, quieter phrase. You might not want to say “this new system will make your work flow faster than a sprinter on steroids” but you can certainly say, “this new system will make your work flow at Olympic speeds.”

And while you’re practicing, keep a watchful eye and ear out for metaphors around you. When you find one that really works for you—maybe it clarifies something definitively, maybe it sums up something perfectly, maybe it just sticks with you—take the time to consider why it works so well. Building your metaphor muscle is like any other kind of training regimen—you can learn a lot by listening to the pros.


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It’s National Work and Family Month. Do you know where your work-life programs are? Funny—I’ve just blogged on that very topic in the Huffington Post.