New Look for Remarkable Communication

As you may have seen, we released the Prose theme for WordPress today, and in honor of that, we decided to switch Remarkable Communication over.

I’m really enjoying the new look, and I hope you are too! I wanted to return a bit more to the “earthy crunchy” look I had early on, but keeping a nice professional design.

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Things to Do Before You Get Famous

Young_violinist

Last year, internationally celebrated violinist Joshua Bell tried an experiment. He took his violin (a Stradivarius built in 1713, worth about $3.5 million) into the Washington, D.C. Metro and played for about 45 minutes.

If you want to get cheap seats to hear Joshua Bell perform, expect to pay at least $100.

So who stopped to listen to him play Bach and Schubert? Nearly no one. Thousands of people marched past, avoiding Bell’s eye so they wouldn’t feel guilty about failing to throw a quarter or two into his case. (He made a little over $32 for the day.)

Music did not soothe the savage breast. Music failed to even register in the savage breast.

(I was fascinated to read about exceptions, like a three-year-old named Evan. Evan knew there was something special going on, and tried to dawdle so he could check it out. But Evan’s mom was in a hurry to get him to daycare and herself on to work and hustled his curious little butt right on past. I don’t blame her, we’ve all been there. As the Washington Post story reported, “The behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.”)

Evidence, if we needed it, that kids are smarter than grown-ups about some things.

Context matters more than ability

So what can we learn from this slightly depressing little story?

For one thing, it’s a stark illustration that talent and ability are not enough. The moral of the story is probably not that Joshua Bell is a mediocre violinist.

Remember the famous coffee commercial, where they substituted crummy supermarket instant coffee for the coffee in great restaurants? Of course people loved the crummy coffee. When they ordered it, they expected to pay $5 a cup for it. It was delivered in a delicate china cup. It came after a great meal. It was brought by a snooty waiter.

It’s not that talent and ability don’t matter. They do. But no one can begin to see talent or ability until they’re put into the right frame.

Some people never see past any frame. Not much we can do for them. But for you, we can make sure you’re choosing the frame that sets you off.

Success is a brand

You don’t need mass appeal or millions of customers to be a success. But your definition of success needs to be a keystone of your brand.

You decide what success is, then show the world how magnificently successful you are by that light.

No one is going to notice your amazing talent and elevate you to fame and fortune. You’ve got to create the fame and fortune in your own outlook first. Claim your position.

This stuff takes time to gel. You might have to be patient. But keep your vision of yourself as a success clearly in your mind. Pretend you’re deposed royalty from some forgotten (but elegant) country. Don’t let your crummy apartment or 20-year-old car make you think of yourself in small terms.

Be your own fan club. Other fans will catch up to you eventually.

You can make your own context

Joshua Bell’s story is also a great lesson in the art of finding what you look for. If you expect to hear not-very-good musicians in the subway, even the world’s greatest violinist will sound like nothing special.

Could anything like that be happening in your life now?

We could try to be a little more aware as we move through our days–leave a little room open for the possibility that something extraordinary could happen. Let’s face it, when human beings are involved, there’s always room for the extraordinary.

But beyond that, we could try to expect better out of our lives. We could expect greatness from our work. We could expect passionate fanaticism from our customers. We could expect personal lives and professional lives that nourished and enriched one another, and brought us joy.

Hell, we could start by expecting to get paid what we’re worth. Baby steps.

Choosing a new frame for Remarkable Communication

I’ve decided that, comfortable though this cozy little joint has been for the past year, it’s time for me to move my voice to a frame that’s better suited to it.

Remarkable Communication is going to change some things–to a new domain name and a spiffy new theme. (My profound thanks to Men with Pens for helping me out with this.)

I am very happy and grateful to have found so many readers on this little homegrown blog. I did everything you’re not supposed to do–I used an uncustomized template, didn’t use my own domain name, was too cheap even to spring for the Typepad plan that would have let me use custom style sheets.

It’s always been about the words for me. But I think it’s time for me to get those words into the right frame. Not every reader is as perceptive as you are. I’d like more people to be able to see this blog clearly.

There might be a few bumps and lumps as we get moving, so I hope you’ll bear with me. I’ll keep this Web address going for a few months so my occasional visitors will know where to find me.

And I’ll let you know what I learn along the way, so you can benefit from the boneheaded mistakes I am sure to make.

Read the original Washington Post article about Joshua Bell’s stunt

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The Nice Guy’s Guide to Authority

IStock_000004721058Small

I’m a big fan of being a nice guy. (I’m using “guy” in a gender-neutral way here. Feel free to read it as “gy” if that floats your boat.)

The kind of marketing I practice doesn’t work too well for jerks. It relies on spending sustained quality time with your customers—and who wants to spend all that time with a jerk?

But sometimes nice guys don’t project a sense of authority. Everyone wants to spend time with us, but they don’t necessarily want to do what we tell them to.

And make no mistake, my friends, we want them to do what we tell them to.

Here are a few observations I’ve made recently by carefully watching and modeling supremely nice people who also have massive authority and credibility. As I’m using these techniques more consciously myself, I’m seeing a significant shift in how I’m perceived.

Combine these with a basic commitment to decency and you’ll be on track to rule the world (nicely) by some time this summer.

Be incredibly good
True authority springs from true expertise. Become insanely good at what you do. If you’re already very good at one or two things, become obsessive about perfecting them.

Unless you’re Leonardo DaVinci, you’re not going to be able to pull off being a generalist. Figure out what you do spectacularly well, then become otaku about getting to be the best in the world at it.

Does “best in the world” sound scary? Remember that “the world” probably means the micro-world you and your customers happen to swim in (the Internet; mid-sized ad agencies in your zip code; barbecue joints in Duluth).

Once you know the size of your world, keep narrowing your focus. Divide and refine what you do until you hit the point where no one can outclass you.

Know where you are going
You may know more than anyone about millefiori Fimo or seahorse wrangling, but if you can’t articulate that knowledge in a helpful way, you aren’t an authority.

Create maps and checklists for what you do. When someone approaches you for help, use those maps to show them you know exactly what to do, in exactly what order, and using exactly which tools.

Of course the first step is always “figure out what the hell this person needs.” You know that and I know that. That step is on your map too, but don’t dwell on it in the early days.

Show your customer what the overall map looks like, and that you can travel the territory with confidence and ease. They’re already spending most of their time trying to figure out what the hell they need, they don’t need you to increase their anxiety there.

(In fact, you almost certainly need a mini-map to “figuring out what they need.” Get good at that and you’ll be better than 90% of the folks you’re competing with.)

You could get a little pompous and call this your methodology. If you do, the nice-guy rules require you to immediately snicker at yourself and point out your own pomposity.

Know your core
Nice guys are flexible. They listen. They take the other person’s position into consideration.

Authority figures have a core set of values that simply doesn’t move. It’s not stubbornness, it’s deep, confident knowledge. Think of the calm, centered energy of a mountain.

Remember, keep it relaxed, never cutting or defensive. You’re going for the Dalai Lama, not Donald Rumsfeld.

Know what you’re willing to bend on. And know what you will never bend on, because it’s integral to who you are and what you have to offer.

Get your ego out of the way
You’re here to facilitate solving someone’s problem, not to look smart or cool or in control. Watch yourself carefully for signs that it’s becoming about you and your ego, rather than about making things great for your customer.

Ego is such a gigantic force that there’s an entire religion devoted to trying to dissolve it. Keep watching carefully, and keep asking yourself, “Is this about me?”

Keeping a watchful eye on your ego is the best defense to keeping it under control.

Be disarming
If you’re three feet tall with a hair lip and long, flowing back hair, mention those facts frequently. Make fun of yourself as often as possible over something that isn’t all that important. Your appearance is usually a good place to start. On the other hand, if you’re stupidly good-looking, you might want to develop some really funny material about your vanity.

Confess to small flaws that people can relate to. For example, I’m a hypersensitive, cranky, politically correct, compulsive control freak with nearly disabling insomnia and a significant chocolate problem.

Weirdly enough, the more open I am about all of those, the more people trust that I’m also a smart, strategic, perceptive marketer and copywriter who uses content, relationship and community to create wildly successful marketing.

Tell us in the comments: what are you working on that you could become the best in the world? Is that how the world sees you, or are you still working on it?

What Romance Novels Can Teach You About Copywriting

By Sonia Simone

The latest Copyblogger post! It’s been getting some very nice comments, which always makes me feel warm & fuzzy.

http://www.copyblogger.com/romance-novels/

The Hidden Cost of Playing It Safe

By Sonia Simone

safety pup

A lot of us put significant energy into keeping it safe. We don’t want to do anything that wouldn’t be tasteful. We don’t want to do anything that would get on anyone’s nerves. And we truly, madly, deeply don’t want to make any mistakes. If we get a complaint or some crabby feedback, we scurry back and "fix" what we did so it won’t upset anyone.

We guard carefully against "losing" any readers or customers. (When we should be putting more energy into truly winning some.) We play by the rules. We take pains never to offend anyone, and we believe fervently that that keeps us safe.

We are dead wrong.

Boring is dangerous
The problem with boring is, you don’t see the damage it causes. It’s easy to miss the huge majority who yawn and click the Stumble button again. You never see the customers who don’t come back because they don’t ever think about you. You have no idea of the business you’re missing out on because your communication is just too nice and normal for anyone to remember or talk about.

It’s easy to tell yourself that the problem is the short attention spans that are rampant today, or the monumental failure of the public taste, or that there’s too much competition. Those may all be true, but that doesn’t get you any business. It’s painfully easy to blame your lack of success on what’s wrong with everyone else.

Being boring doesn’t keep you safe. Maybe it used to, for a little while, but it doesn’t any more. If you want to really terrify yourself, pick up a book called Funky Business. The authors are Swedish economics professors, and come across a tiny bit like Saturday Night Live characters ("Ja, we go to discos. Also we wear black.") but they’ve got a razor-sharp analysis of the new economic primordial soup we’re all swimming around in.

I try not to swear on the blog, so I can’t tell you the Funky Business take on what the 21st-century economy boils down to, but I can tell you: it’s not playing it safe.

Remember when you were in second grade and there was that fearless, fast kid who used to swoop in and steal your Snickers before you really understood what was happening? That kid is still around, and he’s launching a lean, aggressive, competitive little business that’s about to do it again.

Being an idiot is not the answer
Being a damned fool works for some people, but I’ll tell you, it’s got to be genuine. I doubt the damned fool strategy will work for you, for one reason: damned fools don’t read my blog. Despite my best efforts, I use too many big words and I keep picking weird pictures.

So most of you reading this are, well, smarter than the general population. Which can be something of a handicap, quite frankly. Let me guess, history majors, lit majors, maybe the occasional dual-major in Russian and math? (Tell us in the comments!) And, of course, the usual collection of self-taught misfits who write essays (which you might call blog posts) for fun on the influences of Proust in Ren & Stimpy. You’re a bunch of smartypants, which is why you come here for advice.

So if Jon Morrow was right in his terrific recent post, and valedictorians make lousy bloggers (and/or marketers), what are we supposed to do about that?

Here’s Jon’s answer, which I like a lot.

Unlike high school, being a blogosphere “clown” is less about acting stupid and more about telling the truth in an interesting way. Sometimes they’ll laugh, sometimes they’ll get mad, and sometimes they’ll be thinking about your post two weeks later. Regardless, as long as you’ve captured and maintained their attention, you’ve won.

Your to-do list

  • Know what you know, then hold your ground. Don’t water your stuff down because someone got pissy about it. If you’re pissing some people off, you’re on to something.
  • Keep looking for interesting angles. Look for striking metaphors, startling examples, powerful stories.
  • Come up with some rituals to celebrate failure. There is no way to succeed except through good old embarrassing, stinky failure. I’ve just discovered Molly Gordon, and she has a great technique in her eBook Principles of Authentic Promotion called the "Failure Bow." The eBook is free when you subscribe to her weekly e-newsletter (the opt-in form is on the right side of the page).
  • Do at least one thing you think is a little tacky, just because you secretly love it.
  • Consider writing a journal every day, especially some freewriting where you keep your pen (or keyboard) moving for 20 minutes without letting yourself stop. Let the words sit a week or two, then go back through your journals and look for stuff that freaks you out a little. There’s something there you should be mining.

Related reading

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Flickr Creative Commons image by exfordy

What Do You Really Do?

By Sonia Simone

yoyogi-girls-3 by ehnmark

Ittybiz is one of my two or three favorite blogs, and one of the few I read religiously every day. She helps small businesses with their marketing, and she has an amazing ability to cut through people’s self delusion and help them figure out what they really do.

Naomi gave us five questions to answer–privately for ourselves, and publicly for our customers. So far I’ve resisted the "meme" phenomenon (IMO not the right word for it, but I can’t think of a better one, damn it), but I liked these questions a lot, and answering them did help me see some things more clearly.

If you have any kind of regular connection with customers–a blog, a Squidoo lens, a newsletter–you might consider answering these questions to get to the heart of what you do.

(If you blog these or put them on the Web in some way, let me know with a trackback or a comment and I’ll post a link so we can all swing by and get to know you better.)

What’s your game? What do you do?
I’m a shrink for businesses–both big businesses and small ones. I help them build better relationships with their customers by creating better communication.

Why do you do it? Do you love it, or do you just have one of those creepy knacks?
I love it and I have one of those creepy knacks. Somewhere along the line I got good at seeing through to what folks were really good at, and helping them put that into words.

Who are your customers? What kind of people would need or want what you offer?
Folks who hate marketing but don’t want their business to die.

What’s your marketing USP? Why should I buy from you instead of the other losers?
The kind of marketing I do doesn’t require you to choose between your soul and the success of your business. You can have both–in fact, that’s where you find the greatest successes. I can help you with that.

What’s next for you? What’s the big plan?
I’m putting together some products that will help people learn effective, ethical marketing for themselves. Straight info–no sleazy, unethical tricks and no feel-good fluff. My motivation for this has been my notable lack of success in working 48-hour days to keep up with all of the people I want to help.

Flickr Creative Commons image by ehnmark

Relationship Marketing Series #5: Pay Attention

Paying-attention Remember we talked about my friend Jon’s dictum: “Show up, pay attention, don’t lie?” I’ve already talked about showing up; today, I’ll share a few thoughts on paying attention.

There’s hardly anyone who won’t benefit from spending more time on this. It’s the cornerstone of at least one major world religion, and the watchword for everyone from mothers of toddlers to The Beatles. The subject is too vast for any one post to cover–I could probably write a daily blog called “Remarkable Attention.” (Which would be kind of cool.)

So I’ll pick out a few aspects of attention that I think are important, but give some thought to how paying better attention could make your own project work better. Put your focus (attention) on it and I guarantee you’ll find something.

It’s not about you

Have you ever considered what it is that drives you nuts about your friend who never pays attention to a word you say? What’s she paying attention to? If she’s making you nuts, I’m betting that it isn’t NASCAR or the Democratic primaries or her interprative dance career she’s putting all her attention on; it’s herself.

We can’t stand people who are so wrapped up in themselves that they can’t pay attention to us. We want someone to tune into our nonstop mental radio talk show, not their own. Being self-centered is a little like Dorothy Parker’s observation about the rich: “I hate almost all rich people, but I think I’d be darling at it.” We all think our own issues and concerns and preoccupations are important, or at least endearing, but we can’t stand the same self-centeredness in anyone else.

Like it or not, that’s what you’re dealing with in your customers. If your company is so enraptured with your own policies, rules, challenges, crises, concerns and problems that you’re not paying attention to your customers, you are doomed. Wal*mart can probably continue to get away with it–you can’t. (Here’s a pithy and very low-tech example of the right way to approach things.)

When you get complaints, feedback, and other useful information from customers, instead of immediately launching into all the reasons you can’t do that here, learn to SHUT UP AND LISTEN. Remember the cardinal rule of marketing: It’s not about you, it’s about the people who fund your payroll. Learn how to put aside any defensiveness–whether it’s your own or your employees’–to effectively pay attention to feedback when you’re lucky enough to get it.

I’m not saying you have to (or are able to) fix every problem and resolve every complaint. But if you don’t listen carefully and pay attention to grousing and complaints, even when they’re irritating, you’ll lose out on the opportunity to make some highly useful changes. And somewhere out there, you’ve got a competitor who will make them.

Tune in

It’s good to get a little obsessed with how your customers respond to you. This means you’ve got to have some way to measure all of your communication. What percentage of your email list is actually opening your e-newsletter? How many are clicking through? When they do click through, what kind of stuff attracts them? What services or products do your customers respond to most strongly? What kind of language and tone seem to be working best to reach them? What kinds of offers get them out of procrastination mode and into action?

There are a lot of books and blogs and consultants who want to give you all that information without your having to measure it. If you have perfectly standardized customers who are exactly average, that will work well for you. Are your customers exactly average? Are anyone’s?

If you get in the habit of asking tons of questions and then figuring out how to measure the answers, you’ll start to notice when something works especially badly or especially well. The act of keeping an eye on customer response will naturally provide the right directions for change and growth. Keep tweaking and testing, and keep measuring the results, and you’ll find yourself doing more of the right things.

Ask for more information

Whatever kind of organization you have, you can find ways to serve your customers better. One of the smarter ways to do that is to ask them.

Big companies, small companies and microbusinesses can all benefit from creating a regular survey program to ask their customers how it’s going. Big companies use fancy, expensive survey companies, but even a tiny business can set up a survey using cheapo tools like Survey Monkey.

How do your customers feel about that nifty (expensive) improvement you just made? Do they even know about it? Does it solve a problem they cared about? How’s their relationship with your customer service people? What do they think about your policies? What do they wish you offered that you don’t now?

A good survey program measures two major themes–how happy people are with various aspects of your business, and how much those aspects matter to them. So if they don’t give your office hours high marks but those hours aren’t actually all that important to them, you don’t need to put that on the top of your list. Paying attention to what’s important to your customer, as well as to what they like and what they don’t, will help you prioritize improvements to provide the greatest value.

Paying attention is one of those things (like most of this series) that is easy to say and think about, but hard to do. It’s worth it. Push yourself to pay better attention to your customers (and while you’re at it, employees, if you have them). I predict you’ll start seeing some amazing results in a surprisingly short time.

The Relationship Marketing Series

How You Will Make Your Fame and Fortune

art, like communication, can be messy

Godin recently pointed to a page of color choices that would "change your life. A lot. For the better." I clicked through expecting something at least mildly earth-shattering, and found about a dozen nice color palettes.

Life: not changed.

I mention this only because it makes me just a little glad that Godin is not great at everything. Godin is great at what he does, but apparently picking colors is something he sees as fairly difficult. I probably couldn't handle being VP of marketing for Yahoo, but give me a simple set of tools and a free three or four hours, and I'll gladly hand you 20 good-looking color palettes that will work for a lot of different applications and appeal to a wide range of people. That comes hard to a lot of people, and it comes easily to me.

The hugely-hyped Peter Drucker asks, in The Effective Executive, "What are the things that I seem to do with relative ease, while they come rather hard to other people?"

Go write that down. (I'll wait.) Put it where you can see it just about every day.

What are the things that you seem to do with relative ease, while they come rather hard to other people?

Some world-changing things
Godin sees the patterns of a new kind of marketing communication. He's called those patterns "Permission Marketing," "Purple Cows," "New Marketing," "Ideaviruses," and a host of other labels. He can translate those patterns to things he sees every day, providing positive and negative examples. His examples help other people see the patterns that most of us couldn't see before, or couldn't see clearly.

That's his thing. I would venture to guess that it has made him a pretty nice living. It has certainly made him hugely influential.

Pema Chodron's thing is taking esoteric and difficult Buddhist teachings and making them very clear and accessible to people living "normal" lives in the technologically-advanced West. Her mentor Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was a greater Buddhist master, but Pema is a much more effective writer and teacher for ordinary Americans. She has eased the suffering and enlarged the compassion of countless people. Those people have gone on to ease the suffering and enlarge the compassion of others. She was an ordinary woman–a divorced schoolteacher with a plain face and bright eyes–who developed an extraordinary thing.

David Allen's thing was a way of looking at how to get more stuff done. He published two skinny books about it. (This one and the other one. You need both of them, trust me.) I have no idea if the guy has any other thing. He doesn't need one. GTD has revolutionized the lives of hundreds of thousands of people (including mine) and gotten one hell of a lot of stuff done in the seven years since his book was published.

Naomi Dunford's thing is taking big-agency marketing tactics and translating them in ways that work for Itty Businesses. She works too much because people go crazy for what she does and she can't multiply herself. Plus she should charge more money. And take better care of her health. But all that aside, she came forth doing her thing (and talking about it in a vivid, memorable way) and people went for it big time. There's power in the thing.

Understand the thing you have to offer
Some people have one thing that really works. A lot of people have a small collection of things that work uniquely well together. Even people with very grave mental disabilities usually have a thing, and for almost everyone, that thing has the seed of something remarkable.

So what's your thing? What comes easily and joyfully to you, and hard to others? Consider the great gift you can make by offering that to those who have a hard time with it.

And what, precisely, are you doing to nurture that remarkable seed?

The Ten Commandments of New Social Media

The Social Media Rules

A lot of people new to social media wonder if there are any rules, and if so, what are they? You’ll be glad to know that yes, this frontier isn’t quite as wild as it looks. Even in these relatively early days, there’s a healthy set of conventions, laws and norms. Just like the original ten, these won’t keep you out of every kind of trouble, but they cover the big stuff pretty well.

Commandment #1: Thou Shalt Participate in the Conversation
The conversation is going to take place with you or without you. The 21st century has no patience with cowards. Opting out is not an option, so get in there and participate.

Commandment #2: Thou Shalt Not Lie
Nothing will sink you faster in the wired world than lying and all its variants. It’s too easy to compare stories, and too easy for your attempted coverups to get leaked. Don’t tell two conflicting stories in two different media. Don’t say you’re one thing when you know that your actions tell an entirely different story. Don’t tell lies of omission. And . . .

Commandment #3: Thou Shalt Not Astroturf
See Commandment #2. Don’t try to engineer conversation or use fake characters to advocate for you. I guarantee you will get caught, and your credibility will take a beating you may never get over. Creating a space for conversation is good. Creating sock puppets is bad.

Commandment # 4: Thou Shalt Talk Like a Human Being
Corporations don’t hold conversations. Enterprises don’t hold conversations. Entities don’t hold conversations. Conversations take place among people. Be a person.

Commandment #5: Remember Thy Community and Keep It Holy
It’s not an audience of passive recipients of your message. It’s a community made up of a complicated mix of personalities. The community has its own needs and its own imperatives. Take care of your community.

Commandment #6: Thou Shalt Not Be a Wimp
Bullies have been a factor in every social group that has ever existed. The anonymity of the Internet gives bullies an extra measure of courage. You must face bullies down every time you encounter them, clearly and forcefully.

Don’t let bully-wrangling turn you into an aggressive butthead yourself. And don’t be a hall monitor, waggling your finger and quoting rules. (Or commandments!) Instead, see #5: be a citizen who values civility and defends it on behalf of your community.

Commandment #7: Thou Shalt Not Snivel
You’re going to get beat up every once in awhile. Never, ever whine about it.

Commandment #8: Thou Shalt Write What Is Worth Reading
Typos aren’t necessarily a big problem, although you notice you never see one on Copyblogger, Problogger or Seth’s Blog. Vague, weak, insipid or meaningless writing are a big problem. Write clearly and with vigor. Cut out every line of corporate doublespeak. If you don’t know how to do that, subscribe to Copyblogger, read it faithfully, and put their advice into practice daily.

Commandment #9: Thou Shalt Not Pontificate About Shit Thou Knowest Nothing About
You will get caught and mocked and that’s just embarrassing.

Commandment #10: Thou Shalt Have a Sense of Humor
It’s just people, and people are pretty much the funniest thing ever. Nothing will serve you online as well as a sense of humor, especially about yourself.

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Related Reading:

Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”

Today is the official U.S. celebration of Martin Luther King day. Every child in the States older than four can hear Dr. King’s "I have a dream" speech ring in their ears when his name comes up, so this might be a good day to look at Dr. King’s message–not only its content, which virtually every civilized person today agrees with, but how it was delivered.

"I have a dream" was a tipping point. King and thousands of others in the civil rights movement had been working tirelessly for years to fight for a federal civil rights act, and for legal equality and social dignity for all people, without regard to the color of their skin. But as a Kennedy administration official mentioned in a radio interview today, this August, 1963 speech was the moment when Martin Luther King took his place not as a black leader but as a world leader.

It’s very hard to remember now that they didn’t know they were going to win. For years, civil rights and the defeat of Jim Crow looked like impossible dreams. To say that changing entrenched thinking, replacing an ugly false story with the true one, was an uphill battle is like saying that Everest is a damn steep hill.

Breaking down the dream
"I have a dream" is the work of one of the most powerful and effective communicators of his generation. Read the speech yourself and see if it doesn’t give you chills. (Copyblogger posted a long exerpt today without comment, a classy move that I should have had the sense to emulate.)

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

The speech is, of course, the work of a dedicated, talented and inspired writer, and there’s no simple technique that can be copied. But for a communicator, it’s still worth studying. As a writer, you can’t replicate the beautiful cadence (although you can try to be aware of the rhythms of your own writing, and make them more lovely), but there are things that you can learn from.

The word that makes that sentence remarkable is probably "red." That concrete, simple descriptor puts the scene in the mind of the audience. Those who have been to Georgia will say, "yes, the hills are red." The picture becomes real. And even for people from Singapore or Paris or Australia who have never been to Georgia, there is a second echo–the sense of a red, bloody battleground today contrasted with the simple, peaceful table of brotherhood tomorrow.

There is a nice sense, too, of ordinariness about the "table of brotherhood." Most of us sit down every day at tables with intimates and friends. It is not extraordinary. We give little thought to the grandparents or great-grandparents of who sits at that table. This simple sentence takes something that was at the time difficult to picture and makes it easy, normal and natural.

A few sentences later, Dr. King says:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. . . . one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."

After he has introduced this quiet, simple idea to you–black and white sitting down in brotherhood–he raises the stakes by bringing children into the equation. The most rigid stereotypes usually soften a little when we think about small children. However tightly we define our own tribe, however fiercely we hate the other side, there’s usually a tiny bit of room in our thinking to adopt a child from the other. Dr. King sends his own small children as emissaries to the hearts of his audience.

Having built this strong foundation on the personal, King takes the argument to the divine:

. . . one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

Just a few moments later the speech climbs to its climax, one of the best uses of repetition in the history of public discourse, the "freedom ring" sequence.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

If this doesn’t make all the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up, you might be dead. Supported by Dr. King’s tremendous speaking voice, the repetition and clarity of this message transported the audience of 250,000–including the presidential administration–to readiness for the final, triumphant conclusion:

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

The dream today
We seem very far from Dr. King’s dream today, but that is because we forget how impossible that dream looked when he spoke those words. Even Martin Luther King, with his vast optimism and clarity of purpose, could not have imagined how quickly we would make important strides.

Like the old carpenter’s joke about building a house, the first 90% takes 90% of the time, and the last 10% takes the other 90% of the time. Today is a good day to celebrate how far we have come, and to give some serious reflection to how we can complete the work. We all know this is not just an American problem or an American dream. You can work for justice from anywhere.

And pencil in some time tomorrow to think about your own dream. Maybe you’re ignited by a great and noble dream like Dr. King’s, or maybe yours is a little smaller. Either way is ok. Think about what you can create to share that dream, to make it real for someone else, to give the dream a life of its own that can survive you.

If you happen to use his construction of comfortable abstraction to personalization to a stirring global vision, you’ll be honoring his memory in a small way. Not a bad thing at all.

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