194: How to Write like Warren Buffett with Elaine Bennett

By August 18, 2017Podcasts

 

 

Elaine Bennett shares how to write better business messages with greater clarity and personality.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Two essential pieces of information you need to be a more effective writer
  2. How you can make a bigger impact with storytelling
  3. Winning ways to turn straight thinking into straight writing

About Elaine

Elaine Bennett had a baptism by fire as a speechwriter. Less than two years after she signed on to write for the CEO of Salomon Brothers, scandal forced the executive to resign. In stepped investor Warren Buffett. Since working with Mr. Buffett, Elaine Bennett has continued putting words in the mouths of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and leading nonprofits. She unearths the stories behind business data and helps executives shape those stories into memorable messages. She also coaches individual professionals looking to develop executive-caliber communication skills.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Elaine Bennett Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Elaine, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Elaine Bennett
Oh, my pleasure, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you have an interesting array of historical clients and folks that you have worked with and one I would love to hear a bit more about is, tell me, Warren Buffett. How did you get connected with him and what was your working relationship?

Elaine Bennett
Well, I was the CEO speechwriter at Salomon Brothers and he was the largest shareholder of Salomon Brothers so we had all of his annual reports lying around the office and I knew that he was considered a great business writer so I started reading his annual reports whenever I had a couple of minutes. And then at some point later Salomon imploded and we very nearly went out of business, and Warren rode in on his white horse to be our interim CEO which saved the company.

And so I was sitting in a press conference, a gigantic press conference, to announce that Warren had come in, and somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You need to go back to your office. They need you to write something.” And it turned out the thing they needed me to write was a little to Salomon’s clients that was going to go out under Warren’s signature saying basically, “Sorry, our bad. We won’t do it again.”

And so I wrote it but I didn’t know who was going to be reviewing it because this was the days before email and everybody who was above my boss had basically been fired. So I wrote my name at like a school paper, I wrote my name in the top corner and my office phone and I sent it out into the world. And the next day my phone rang and I picked it up and this voice said, “Elaine, this is Warren Buffett. Did you write this thing?” I said, “Well, yes, sir. I did.” He said, “It sounds like I wrote it.”

I said, “Well, sir, that’s my job.” And that was the beginning of a really wonderful working relationship. And I should apologize because my Warren Buffett imitation actually sounds a lot more like Walter Brennan but Warren does not sound so goofy in person. But, anyway, it was a wonderful experience to work with him. He’s a very smart man.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s so cool. And I’d love to hear what was maybe a lesson or gem or tip or takeaway you picked up across the time you’re working together?

Elaine Bennett
Tell the truth. Tell the whole truth. Tell the truth. Don’t hold anything back. If you’ve got something untoward that you need to talk about, talk about it because people will forgive you an indiscretion or something bad that you did, but they are not going to forgive you for lying.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, that is wise and I’ve heard it said and I agree that when you screw up, you know, people they don’t like it, they’re like, “Aargh,” they’re sort of annoyed but it’s kind of understandable that you screwed up. But when you lie about screwing up, then it’s a whole another story.

Elaine Bennett
Yeah. Well, when Warren came in, he said, “Look, if you make a mistake, make a mistake. But if you do anything that damages Salomon’s reputation, you’re out.” And so while he was there, some kid, some clerk in the trading department put an extra zero on something and cost the company a lot of money, and Warren was like, “You know that happens.”

Pete Mockaitis
Alright. Well, now we’ve covered that, let’s shift gears to talk about – professionalism and professionals. And so you have towering expertise when it comes to writing and writing skills and helping people with that. I’d love it if maybe you could tee up the conversation by sharing with us why are writing skills important? And how many folks do you think got it?

Elaine Bennett
They are very important and I could probably count the number of really good business writers on the fingers of my hands. If you’re in business you read these whitepapers, you read these reports, you read the emails that people send you, it’s a complete waste of time because if people wrote more clearly then the people they write it to could read the things faster and understand them and act on them more efficiently. But there’s a lot of really muddy business-writing out there.

I’ll give you an example. I was listening to a podcast this morning and I don’t even remember which one it was. It was not yours. And the woman being interviewed, the guy asked her a question and she’s like, “You know, I’m really glad you asked me that question and I was really glad when I read in the pre-read that you sent me that you were going to ask me that question because it gave me an opportunity to think about what I would say when you asked me that.”

I mean, she went on for literally two minutes just sort of bluffing until she could figure out the answer to the question that he had asked her a day before or an hour before. And that kind of thing just, oh, it makes my blood boil because it’s a waste of time. And so keep your audience in mind. When you’re writing, what is this person I’m writing to – whether it’s an email or a speech or anything – what is the audience going to need to know and what do I want them to do with that information?

And if you can write your things with those two pieces of information in your head you’re going to be a much more effective writer.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And so I think that’s fantastically on the spot, and I appreciated how when you pitched me on you, which you did very well, 95% plus.

Elaine Bennett
Oh, thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Don’t get on the show. So I thought you did. You gave me what I need to know. I was like, “Yes, sure enough.” You connected to what we’re about and showed me that you had relevant content as well as authority in the space, as well as engaging-ness to look at. And so I was like, “That’s what I need.” Whereas, I think a lot of times what I don’t need are it seems like a lot of publicists are maybe trying really hard to be topical to a news item. It’s like, “I don’t really care a lot about United’s woes or Uber’s troubles.”

Elaine Bennett
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t really need that connection and who knows when this show will air, if it’s a month of two after the news event has faded regardless. So, alright, cool. Well, then so that’s a great broad perspective there when it comes to keep the audience in mind, what do they need to know, what you want them to do. Any other sort of broad universal perspectives or principles that you bear in mind when you do all your writing?

Elaine Bennett
Sure. I just want to say that you have done a really good job of positioning your podcast because the name of the podcast, Pete, How To Be Awesome At Your Job, tells you exactly what you’re going to give me as a listener and what you want me to give your audience as the guest. So, of course, I’m going to give your audience tips to, hopefully, help them to be more awesome at their jobs.

And one thing you can do is be aware of something called the curse of knowledge. Now this is a term that was created by Chip Heath and Dan Heath in a really wonderful book they wrote called Made to Stick. And if your listeners haven’t read Made to Stick I would highly recommend it. And the curse of knowledge is when you know something so well, you have some information like maybe you’re a specialized person in finance, right?

I once had a guy on Wall Street tell me, “I’m going to make a cash transaction with a disinterested third party.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “I’m going to the deli to buy a sandwich.” That’s completely unnecessary. He was just showing off. But when you know so much about your subject you can’t just sort of open up the fire hydrant and give all of that information to your audience especially if they don’t have the same level of expertise that you do.

So you have to figure out, you sort of have to take yourself back to when you were learning this, “Did I understand what that term meant?” I used the term C-suite in my blog awhile back and I got letters from some of my readers saying, “You know, I had to Google that.” Or ROI, people don’t always know right off that that’s return on investment. So I hate acronyms anyway. I would always say return on investment.

But be aware of what you know and talk to your audience at the level that they’re at. You can bring them up a level and that’s a wonderful thing to do, is to impart knowledge to people but don’t be giving a graduate-school lecture to fifth graders.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Oh, these are great principles. So beware the curse of knowledge and think about what it was like before you knew those things, be conscious of acronyms, etcetera, and be thinking about the recipient and who are they, what do they need to know, what actions will they take. Okay. So, now, is there sort of more of a step-by-step that you think through when you do your writing? Was it Warren Buffett who said that you turn straight thinking into straight writing?

Elaine Bennett
Yes, Warren said that. It’s wonderful.

Pete Mockaitis
What’s the protocol for making that happen?

Elaine Bennett
How do you do that? Well, actually that’s really the curse of knowledge because in order to turn out straight writing you have to sort of straighten out the thinking for yourself, right? So know what you’re saying, know who your audience is, know what they want and what you want from them, and then tell stories. That’s the most important thing you can do. Even in an email.

The story doesn’t need to be five minutes long, it can just be one sentence. But if you can tell a story then the listener or the reader is going to connect with your information in a different way than if you just gave them a bunch of facts.

So you want them to get engaged in what you’re writing so that they will remember what you’ve said, and if you don’t want people to remember what you’ve said then why are you saying it in the first place, and they will act on it. So telling stories is really the most important thing that you can do whatever kind of communication you’re doing.

Pete Mockaitis
Now that’s so fun with the storytelling there because it does make a huge impact on the recipient in terms of just connections. And I’m making connections right now. We had a previous guest, Dianna Booher, she told a tale of Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a story, super short, and it was like, “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Elaine Bennett
Never worn.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, wow. That’s brief but it just packs a punch, and I’m so intrigued what happened to this poor child. So could you maybe give us some other examples, then of storytelling, email or verbally, one or two or three sentences. How do we pull that off? Because I think a lot of people are thinking storytelling equals a big old narrative that’s going to take a couple of pages. So how do we deliver that?

Elaine Bennett
Yeah, so look at what I said in answer to your first question about Warren. I could’ve just said, “Well, I was working for Salomon Brothers and Warren came in as the CEO, the interim CEO, and so I got to work with him.” Now that’s the same set of facts but it’s much less interesting and it doesn’t give you room as a listener. It doesn’t give you room to put yourself in the story.

But if I tell you, “I was sitting in my office minding my own business, and the phone rings, and it’s Warren Buffett on the line,” well, you’re going to be like, “Oh, my God, how would I feel if that happened to me?” And so it really draws you in. So that’s just one way

So a story doesn’t have to be a big huge thing, right? So I was talking to my writing students the other day and I was talking to them about overusing adjectives and adverbs. You really don’t want to do that, and you don’t really need to. If you read a writer like James Baldwin, I showed them a sentence that he wrote, it was a really long sentence, it was 157 words and only six of them were adjectives or adverbs but it was incredibly descriptive.

Now a story doesn’t have to be 157 words long. This is the story I told them to explain that. It’s like your living room furniture. Do you want an overstuffed sofa that’s stuffed so full of adjectives and adverbs that you can’t even sit on it? Or would you like to have a whole suite of furniture with the adjectives and adverbs spread out among the different pieces? So that’s not a long story but, hopefully, you’ve got a picture in your mind now of an overstuffed sofa that you don’t want to sit on.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So you’re saying that the metaphor here associated with the furniture counts. That’s another means of delivering a story?

Elaine Bennett
Yeah, absolutely. Anything that’s not a straightforward fact counts as a story to me.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Certainly. And so then what are, I guess, the fundamental components that make a story a story?

Elaine Bennett
Surprise is a good component. Detail is amazing. I was just listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, and he’s got the episode that I’m thinking out is one about a Nashville songwriter. And he talks about the details in songs, and he compares a very detailed country song that paints a picture to like the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses which is a great song. But it’s just like, “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away,” that’s not really a picture. That’s sort of a statement.

So you want to paint a picture with your words because that’s how people… so when you say “what” things, when you give people facts, they go into that the “what” part of our brains. But when you give them stories or images they go into the “how” part of our brains and that’s a much more active part, right? The “what” part is like a filing cabinet, the “how” part is like a Rubik’s Cube where you’re manipulating it and trying to play with the images in your brain, sort of in the background, but it gets embedded in there. And so we remember things much more clearly when they’re presented to us in story form.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, could you maybe give us one more example in the business scenario, we’ve got a fact associated with the survey results to show this, or whatever, or X percent of people said why? Could you maybe give us an example to take that from fact to story?

Elaine Bennett
Sure. One of the best examples I’ve read recently was Sallie Krawcheck’s book – I don’t know if I’m pronouncing her name correctly – but her book is called Own It. And she has a little nugget in there about the lack of women on boards of directors. Now she could say, “There’s 17% women on boards of directors,” that’s a fact. But what she did say was something like, “There are more men named John or James or George or William on American boards of directors than there are women.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Elaine Bennett
That just blew me away. And an “or,” that’s “or” not “and,” so there are more men named John than there are women. You know, it’s something that sticks to me.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s good. Thank you. Well, then can you tell us, when it comes to being remembered and acted on, sort of say that’s kind of the point of what you’re going for, do you have any sort of key processes or strategies for making that come to life?

Elaine Bennett
So telling stories but also telling them, you need to tell people stories in the language that they have, right? So, again, it’s a little bit about the curse of knowledge. But do you remember the movie Apollo 13, “Houston, we have a problem,” right? So there was one astronaut who got left off the flight because he had chicken pox or something, and so when the flight ran into trouble he gathered up a big box full of all of the things that the astronauts would have access to in their spaceship and he tried to figure out how to solve their problem using only the tools that they had. That’s what you need to do as a writer.

You need to figure out what resonates for your audience and use the tools that they have access to. So if I were speaking to a group of women, I wouldn’t necessarily start out with a football metaphor. I mean, women are football fans. Sure, I’m a huge baseball fan. We can talk about the Cubs at some point. But I wouldn’t necessarily go with a really hardcore obscure football reference. And if I were speaking to a group of men, I might not use the stuffed furniture reference because they maybe don’t think about furniture as much as other people do. So you want to work with the tools that they have.

And also one thing I want to say, Pete, is that many people in business feel like if they’re writing important business things, they have to write it in a sophisticated way, and so everything gets really formal. And it’s not just the business’ fault. It’s in most people. The last writing they did was in college or grad school, and academic writing is very different than the way normal people write.

So you want to write like people speak and don’t be afraid that if you’re not all fussy and To Whom and not ending sentences with prepositions, don’t be afraid that people will think that you’re not smart. Of course you’re smart. You wouldn’t have your job if you weren’t smart. So just talk to people the way they talk, write the way you talk. And one really good way to learn to write the way you talk is to talk your things out, talk your writing out loud. Talk it into the record app on your phone or whatever and then clean it up and make it more coherent because we’re not always coherent when we speak.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s intriguing. I think that’s great and we do tend to enjoy… well, people would tell me numerous times, “Oh, Pete, it’s like you’re talking to me.” It’s like, “Good. That’s great to hear.” I guess I’m wondering about it seems like there are a number of nuances there when it comes to the speaking versus reading feel of language. For example, I don’t know, maybe, Elaine, you are the person who could finally shed light on this for me.

When I’m reading sort of guests bios I always feel a little weird when they start with a clause like, “Equally at home in both corporate communications and non-profit,” so and so, likes to blob on. And I’m thinking, “People don’t talk like that.” So I feel weird taking a written bio and then saying that with the opening phrase. So I don’t know. Is there a name for this phenomenon and anything else we should watch out for when making a translation?

Elaine Bennett
It’s bad writing. The thing is, if you’re giving somebody a bio to read aloud, like a guest would send you a bio for you to introduce them, you want to not do the sort of second clause first thing, and there probably is a name for that. It’s just not coming to me. But you want to have subject verb clause because that’s the way we hear things unless we’re German in which case we’re used to having things all muddled up.

But if you’re speaking to English speakers, when you say, “Equally at home with…” blah, blah, blah, I don’t know who you’re talking about until you get to the name or the, “she does,” whatever. So when you’re writing for the ear, that’s just one of the things that you need to remember. It’s not the same as writing for the eye. Your sentences need to be shorter. It’s good practice to mix up long and short sentences anyway in any writing.

But you can’t do a James Baldwin 157-word sentence in a speech, and you also need to repeat things. So, like if I said, “Well, Pete says blah, blah, blah. Pete is the host of the podcast, whatever.” So you wouldn’t say, “Pete says blah, blah, blah. He is the host of the podcast.” You want to give them a little repetition of your name.

Remember that when people are listening to you speak they’re hearing it for the first time and the only time and they can’t like say, “Wait a minute. That was confusing. Let me turn the page back and re-read that,” because they’re listening to you so you need to be clear the first time

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now, tell us, you’ve covered a number of don’ts, things you shouldn’t do. Are there any further mistakes that are pretty common amongst business writers and what should we do to prevent them?

Elaine Bennett
Well, can I give you a do instead of a don’t? Write every day. It’s the only way to get better, and you really will get better if you write every day, so just take 15 minutes a day, and shut your door, put a timer on your phone and just write, and the more you do that the better you will get. I’ve been writing for 25 years. I stopped counting at 25 but I’ve been writing for a long time.

And a little over a year ago I decided that I was going to do 15 minutes a day of creative writing for myself that’s not for my clients or my business, and I have been doing that every day for 455 days. And I’ve won awards for writing but my writing is so much better now than it was 455 days ago, so I know it works.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great. And so can you share with us, when it comes to that writing, does it make a difference if you’re doing that digitally with like a keyboard or handwritten?

Elaine Bennett
However you want to get it done. And I count journaling. If there’s a day that I don’t have a blog idea in me or if there’s a day that I have to do my 15 minutes in a parking lot waiting for something, I will just journal. But, yeah, however you want to write. And do different things because the writing you do at your keyboard is going to be different than the writing you do with a pen and paper, and that’s going to be different than the writing you do with a crayon. If you’ve got access to a crayon, grab it and do your 15 minutes. It’s not going to sound like anything you write for business. It’s going to be fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Great. And do you have any further tips or tricks to get a quick boost to writing quality?

Elaine Bennett
Oh, wow. Write every day. Yes, read. Read good writing. I had a friend who was a writer and always complained that she wasn’t getting any better at it, but she wasn’t reading any really good writing. She was reading these cheap little sci-fi novels. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with sci-fi novels but there weren’t very well-written.

So read things that you don’t normally read. Read things that you don’t have to read for work. My favorites are The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Those are really well-written magazines and they cover a wide range of topics. And novels, poetry, it’s all good. And just to sort of air out your brain a little bit because we get so involved with work and with the things that we have to write for work. It’s just really good to open up the windows and let some new ideas in.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Well, so now, I love your take. Those are some suggested pieces to read as well as Warren Buffett stuff, his books and reports, that’s good. Could you maybe tell us what might be some examples of bad things? You mentioned the sci-fi novels. I don’t know about you but sometimes when I’m reading, say, Rolling Stone or Wired, it just feels like they’re trying to have fun with crazy sentences and interesting articulation of things, which is cool for them and artistic and all. But I just couldn’t stand to write something that sounds like that and it might be problematic to do so. I don’t know. What’s your take on bad stuff or what’s your take on that?

Elaine Bennett
You’ve got to stick with your style. I love the musical Hamilton. I think it’s genius but you won’t find me writing a speech in rap. So you’ve got to stick with your style. I actually find, for myself, and this just might be my speechwriter’s ear that I hear voices and somehow they go into my brain and come out in my finger sometimes.

But I find when I read something that’s got a really specific style, like Jane Austen, everything I write after that for a day is going to sound like Jane Austen. So be careful who you’re reading. But one of the things, when I was in college, one of my teachers had us do writing in different styles. So we would write a paper and we would have to write it in two different styles.

So that’s an exercise I give my writing students sometimes to just write a short paragraph as yourself and then write it as if it was a monologue in a western movie, whether you’re the sheriff or the bad guy, and then write it as if it’s a sitcom or a romantic comedy or Shakespeare, whatever kind of genre you want. Just find a couple of different ways to say the same thing.

And that’s especially a good exercise for people who are trying to find their writer’s voice because after you’ve written like three to five different people, the next thing you write is going to be you because your brain just can’t hold that many styles in it, you know?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now, Elaine, is there anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Elaine Bennett
Yeah, I want to mention two things. I have a daily writing challenge that I run from time to time and the next one will be at the end of September, towards the end of September. So it’s write for five days in a row for a minimum of 15 minutes a day, and your $15 registration fee goes to a literacy non-profit. So we can put that in the show notes.

And also I have an ebook that I would love to offer your listeners. It’s called Make Them Listen to You. So it’s five, well, it’s actually six tips on how to communicate effectively with your people whether you’re writing a speech or writing anything.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, now can you share with us a favorite quote?

Elaine Bennett
Oh, I think I would have to say Seth Godin. Seth Godin has many quotable quotes, but my favorite one that I find myself repeating often is, “People like us do things like this.” And it’s a great thing to think about when you’re marketing because you’re not marketing to some faceless, nameless blob. You’re marketing to people like me. People like us do things like this. So if I take a writing class then I’m the kind of person who takes a writing class and people like us take writing classes because they want to improve. So I think, “People like us do things like this.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Elaine Bennett
In the business world I would say The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks. That is the book that I’ve read that’s given me the most to think about. In terms of writing, Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird is a really lovely guide to how to think about writing, and also Stephen King. I don’t read his novels but he’s written a really good book for writers, it’s called On Writing. So there you go – three.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And how about a favorite tool?

Elaine Bennett
My portable keyboard for my iPad lets me write everywhere I am. Although I did write a blogpost on my phone this weekend which was my first time doing that and I felt very millennial.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular brand of keyboard? Is it Bluetooth? Does it connect directly into there? Is it Apple’s?

Elaine Bennett
It’s a Bluetooth. It’s not Apple’s. It’s Logitech and I like it because it’s blue. They have it in different colors. But it’s very flat and it’s Bluetooth and it’s easy to connect and it slits right into my purse with my iPad.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. And is there a favorite habit, a personal practice of yours?

Elaine Bennett
I am a list maker and I have come late to the world of lists. I’ve only been doing it for maybe a year and a half at this point. But I cannot live without my list. I make list. Or actually I just started using a new journal. It’s the BestSelf Journal and it combines all of my different lists-making things into one book. So it’s got a daily journal for keeping track of my appointments, it’s got space for my to-do list, it’s got space for my daily gratitudes in the morning and the evening, and space for my quarterly goals and the things that I’m going to do each day to accomplish those quarterly goals. It’s a fabulous book.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Elaine Bennett
I guess that’s my favorite tool. Forget the Logitech keyboard. Go buy a BestSelf Journal.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Elaine Bennett
BennettInk.com B-E-N-N-E-T-T-I-N-K, like ink for a pen. Or you can find me on Twitter @bizspeechwriter, B-I-Z and speechwriter spelled out.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action you’d issue to folks seeking to be more awesome at their jobs?

Elaine Bennett
Write. Write every day whether you want to or not. Just write. It really will help.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, Elaine, thank you so much for taking this time. It’s been fun.

Elaine Bennett
Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Pete.

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