Writers Talk About Writing
Are You Willing to Talk About the Elephant in the Room?
A friend of mine recently did something dangerous. No, she didn't ride a motorcycle up a mountain during a lightning storm, try bungee jumping off a bridge or attempt to go windsurfing with belugas. Here's her confession: When submitting an RFQ she included a brief personal essay.
An RFQ for those of you who aren't lucky (or maybe unlucky) enough to work for government stands for Request for Qualifications. It's a long and tedious "question and answer" type of form designed to see whether you have the chops to get on what's essentially a "preferred supplier" list.
Cynics might say it's a long and tedious form designed to see if you have the patience to work with bureaucrats, but I digress...
As my friend was slogging through the form, a contrarian notion suddenly floated across her mind. "Hey," she thought. "They want to find out if I can write. So maybe I should show them."
It probably helps that my friend is not just a corporate communications expert, but also a performer (a jazz singer), so a bit of showiness is deeply embedded in her DNA. Still, I thought it took some chutzpah for her to defy the unspoken rules of "professional" behavior and attempt to get personal with government by including an essay with her form.
Furthermore, while she was busy spilling her guts, she happened to glance at her bulletin board and noticed a 20-year-old photo of herself with an elephant. I'm not making this up. The elephant was real and the photo had been taken for a promotion she'd been involved with. Thinking "what the hell," she scanned the picture, inserted it into her Word document and did a nice little text wrap around it.
As you may have guessed, her ploy was wildly successful. She landed a meeting more or less immediately and the government functionary who met her at the elevator recognized her and commented favorably on her submission. Oh, and she made the RFQ list.
So, if you want to succeed as a writer, I suggest you rush out and get yourself an elephant. (Ha ha — just kidding.) Actually, I think there are three take-away lessons here:
- Don't assume that the government or corporate worlds always demand stuffiness. When doing business writing it's tempting to become formal and uptight. You know what I mean — avoiding contractions, utilizing words like "utilize" (instead of "use"), being sucked into passive construction ("mistakes were made"). Don't write like you're filling in a form. Remember: bureaucrats are people too. Sound like a human being and they may just treat you like one.
- Be yourself. Even in this age of processed food and processed entertainment (think American Idol) we still value authenticity — the real deal, the taste of truth rather than packaging. In fact, I think it's because authenticity is so hard to find these days, that we crave it even more. So if you haven't worked with elephants, don't stick them in your resume. But if you have, why try to hide them? Show who you really are — in your writing and in everything you do.
- Do something that makes you stand out from the crowd. As Gypsy Rose Lee said, "You gotta have gimmick." My friend had an elephant, which is pretty hard to beat, size-wise. But you, too, can make your writing more interesting or jazzier in small ways. It just takes some creative thinking. And some guts.