We learn to outline our writing in about the fifth grade. I loved the mechanics of it. How symmetrical the page looked with the alphabet and Roman numerals lined up in the left margin! Have I used that skill as a writer? Not really. So – no surprise here – I don’t require my university students to do it either.

In my business communication course, students craft a variety of content in myriad formats: Proposals, emails, blog posts, formal letters and presentations, to name a few. Unless you’re on staff at The Atlantic or have a book deal with Random House, these are the kinds of routine writing most people do. In my class, thesis statements are needed for major research projects. Drafts set mile markers for time management. But outlines would be … busywork. And something else for me to grade.

More useful than knowing how to set your software to format a page with letters and numerals is being able to plan and organize your writing. The starting point is so simple that students roll their eyes: Have a beginning, middle and end. But think about it. How often have you received an email that wanders endlessly, with no apparent point? How about the proposal that starts with the call to action, but with no reason or context? It happens often. We’re busy and we just want to get one. More. Email. Done. Today.

If simple is the starting point, stay there. And don’t re-invent process. Old-school reporters use who-what-where-when-why. And maybe how. Who are you writing to? What do you want them to know or to do? You get the idea.

Sometimes that’s not enough for the project in front of us. It’s complex. It’s unclear even to the you, writer. Too much or not enough? Is everything here that needs to be here, and no more? Then, it’s okay to look to the prolific magazine writer or storied authors of fiction for ideas.

John McPhee, long-time staff writer for The New Yorker and author of 32+ books, detailed several organizing tactics in Draft 4 – On the Writing Process. Some are predictably linear; others are curiously not. One looks like a meandering river. He deftly found that one size does not fit all writing and generously shares a variety of approaches.

I was hoping for similar advice from prolific, best-selling author Stephen King in On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft. But here, King doesn’t talk about organizing as much as he talks about inspiration (“What if?”) and his toolbox of description and dialogue. Still useful in our everyday communication needs as storytelling is still a powerful influencer.

I hoped that, since my grade school days, we’d quit drilling on outlines. Apparently not. In a recent NPR interview with Kate DiCamillo, author of favorite children’s book Because of Winn-Dixie, she recounted answering questions during a school assembly. One youngster asked if she used outlines. She said no, why? Apparently, the child’s teacher emphatically required outlines for creative writing assignments. In a gentle dressing down of the instruction, DiCamillo disagreed with the requirement. After all, she said, how can you outline if you don’t yet know the ending?

There are plenty of back-to-school-looks-different-in-2020 posts. I’m not writing that. My thoughts here are the same with the start of every new semester. Not just in September. Not just when the classroom is a computer screen and the teacher is wearing pajama bottoms. My biggest challenge with university students at the start of term is to convince them that mastering clear communication matters. It gets harder every year.

It doesn’t get harder because they don’t understand the value of communication. They do. But everything around them reinforces the idea that a popular Tik Tok video or an emoji-laden text is all you need to “communicate.” And you can build a career – or at least a current revenue-generating source – from that. Now, every generation has its examples of wildly successful people who built empires out of nothing save the masterful creativity in their heads – no formal education in sight. So, what do we tell youth about the value of learning?

I’m not going to slide into the discussion about whether or not today’s university degrees are worth it (student debt aside). In recent years, many major companies have eliminated their employment requirement for a college degree. And it’s not just tech giants like Google and Apple. Now, Ernst & Young, Bank of America, IBM and Penguin Random House are among those who erased the “degree earned” from their employment applications. That’s a different conversation.

Rather, when I’m faced with another 30 undergraduate faces wondering why their institution requires them to take this 3000-level course in business communications, I ask myself the same question they’re asking: Why? And the follow-up: Who cares? (And, tangentially: How can I slide through this course with minimal effort?) Answer the first question honestly and the others take care of themselves.

Answer: Because the business world today – for all its creativity and terrifically disruptive initiatives – will always need people who can write a few simple sentences and make their point. Even influence and motivate. At the very least, inform. You will not deliver the quarterly financials to the board of directors via Instagram. WeChat may very well be the best platform to grow your business, but you still have to pitch potential investors via a live Zoom call (or someday, in person). And you only have 15 minutes.

Jeff Bezos has banned PowerPoint presentations at his senior executive meetings. Bezos is easy to hate but I love him for this. And I emphasize clever presentation graphics less and less.

Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp says his top hiring criteria is writing skill. “You have to be a great writer to work here, in every single position, because the majority of our communication is written, primarily because a lot of us work remotely but also because writing is quieter. And we like long-form writing where people really think through an idea and present it.” Be still my writer’s heart.

And then, this summer – published the same week as World Emoji Day! – an interview with Automattic founder and CEO Matt Mullenweg where he, too, talked about hiring practices a bit out of the mainstream: The majority of roles are hired via chat. The (written) cover letter gets attention. A chat conversation happens instead of a traditional interview. “I think clear writing is a sign of clear thinking,” according to Mullenweg.

Once again (at least for one more semester) I am vindicated. I can justify the rewrite exercises and grammar quizzes and rubric categories on clear, compelling writing. Whew. Back to school indeed.

I know two Katrinas. One got a passing mention earlier this week, the 15-year anniversary of history-making Hurricane Katrina. She was a devastating Category 5 storm that left the Gulf states of the US, particularly New Orleans and its greater metropolitan area, in tatters for years to come. The death toll is still uncertain. Her distant relative, Hurricane Laura is getting all the headlines this week, but I flashback to 2005 with every news report.

My experience with this Katrina was from miles away, part of a crisis communication team fielding disaster response for our employer, a major agribusiness. We had a grain export facility at the very end of the Mississippi River as it spilled into the Gulf – the center for much of Katrina’s wrath.

In 2005, I was not new to crisis communications. I had managed media response and employee messaging for myriad events before. But Katrina imprinted invaluable lessons that no situation before or since matched. I’m sure others – whether in communications, operations or emergency response – have similar experiences. Here are my top three takeaways from Katrina.

Have a plan. I know – we always say this first. This was different. An agribusiness with numerous lines of busines had an almost constant risk of an “event” – a grain elevator explodes, a pipeline leaks, a railcar jumps the tracks. We were fortunate to have detailed disaster response and recovery plans and routine drills. But none of those plans prepared us for a Cat 5 hurricane and 53 breaches of flood protection structures submerging some 80% of the area where our employees lived, and our business stood.

An existing plan meant that we weren’t wasting valuable time trying to figure out the fundamentals. Like how to reach our location manager when cell phone towers and power lines were kaput. (Look up the old Nextel network.) Instead, we focused on the unique challenges of THIS event, like reaching scattered employees back when social media was still a toddler and cell phones were not yet smart.

Prioritize your people. Even if we’d had an unlimited communication team, addressing all key audiences at once is madness. Some should jump to the front of the line. The Friday before Katrina waltzed across Florida, preparations for a shutdown were already in place as our employees and export partners were used to hurricane season in the Gulf. Now every employee was displaced for an indeterminate period of time.

With massive flooding in the region and Katrina on the move, the rail and river system that moved our farmers’ grain to the Gulf for export was at a standstill, as well. Many “breadbasket of America” areas were heading into harvest and expecting to send their supplies southward. And the media descended. We had a strong reputation as always answering reporters’ calls and, boy, were they calling.

No surprise that our employees were first – and the most challenging. Remember, there was no Twitter yet. Customers and farmers were watching the situation on the news so were understanding about the unknowns. The media turned out to be as much our resource as we were theirs. My colleague and I likely answered more reporters’ calls in 5 days than we collectively had in the previous decade. (Ok. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but not by much.) Quotes from us in the national news was a signal to affected employees staying with friends or family sometimes several states away that the facility was ready to open – with their jobs waiting for them – whenever they were ready.

Build relationships before you need them. We like to think that’s the foundation of good communication programs, but too often we get caught up in looking in the mirror instead of looking around at others. Our operations people were under water (pun intended) with managing a crisis of this magnitude and legitimately didn’t want to make time for media interviews. But we had already built trust with major news outlets so everyone understood the time would be well spent – on both sides.

As a global supplier, we had deep relationships with the companies that moved commodities across the ocean for us, as well. I’ll never forget how they stepped up following Katrina. Our employees wanted to work, and we wanted them back, but the area would take months before it was habitable again. Many didn’t even have homes to return to. One of our vessel partners parked a Panamax container ship at our port, outfitted to house our staff in staggered shifts – kitchen, showers, sleeping quarters. Their families had to stay wherever they took refuge but at least someone in the household was back to a bit of a routine.

There are too many other examples to chronicle here, including the thousands of other company employees across the US. They spent months raising money and donating goods from toys to refrigerators for Louisiana co-workers they’d never met (and likely never would).

I’m not saying we did everything perfect from a communications standpoint. We were certainly making some decisions by the seat of our proverbial pants. Perhaps my hindsight is a bit rosy, but I’ve used my lessons learned in every communication strategy since. Overall, I credit a company culture that trusted and supported its communication professionals. There’s a reason it’s called crisis communication.

As a career writer and editor, I’m hard pressed to do much of anything without that lens on life. Now and again, I publish book reviews for Arabian Horse Travel. A recent book smacked of communication fundamentals disguised as horse training, so I couldn’t let that pass without comment here.

My review starts, “Humans and horses have built an incontrovertible bond over some 6,000 years now. Those who prefer paddocks over patios don’t look to explain this connection, although 105 million search results for the phrase suggests otherwise. Paddock people like me do search for a deeper understanding of this bond to guide them with practical tools for a better horse-human relationship. Bonus? A touch of inspiration. I found all that in Through the Eyes of the Horse by Carlos Tabernaberri (Moonrise Media).”

You can read the rest of the short book summary, but the essence of the author’s approach is enviable in its simplicity: know your audience. Carlos teaches readers that your horse is your focus (aka audience), not the other riders on the trail or the judges of the show ring. It’s Communication 101.

We want to influence behavior (buy this product) but we too often ignore the very people we want to motivate. Instead we create social content or ad campaigns we think the boss will like or the lawyers will approve or that will win industry awards. We might even think we’ve got the audience/customer in scope, but sometimes that’s no more than a line entry on the creative blueprint. It’s not enough.

What spells success for communications that influence is not unlike horse training. As I note in my review of Carlos and his approach, horses want you to walk in their hooves for a bit and see the world through their eyes. If you cannot see the outcome from your audience’s perspective, you need to go back to the drawing board. Or the training ring.

No one likes press conferences. No one. Reporters prefer to complete their assignments any other way than answering a cattle call to get exactly the same info that everyone else gets. The people at the lectern would rather be doing anything else – maybe even their day jobs – than be shepherded into a crowded room of faces that clearly would rather be anywhere else.

PR people who host them loathe the events because they know the aforementioned will never be happy at the outcome and will blame PR. Even the sound techs in the back of the room dread being there because they know at least one speaker will try to swallow the mic despite being shown just minutes earlier that it was unnecessary to have the device that close to one’s mouth.

So why have them?

A cursory search didn’t turn up much in the way of press conference history, except that Woodrow Wilson held the first presidential presser in March 1913, reportedly an accident. His private secretary invited a small gathering of 100 or so “newspapermen” to chat with the new president. Wilson wasn’t ready for a formal speech and, to everyone’s delight, didn’t give one. That was the last time that happened.

We had a brief moment in the early days of social media when many in PR thought the whole construct of mass media, including news outlets as the conduit, would radically change and we would leap over reporters to issue news directly to “the people.” What fun! People will love us!

But people didn’t love our corporate-videos-labeled-news. They liked the videos – they just didn’t consider them news. And no matter how many articles were published about the death of the press release, it didn’t die, and we still needed to talk to reporters. And have press conferences.

Is it possible to have a presser that doesn’t suck? Yes. The first step is to look at ourselves in the mirror, raise our right hand and pledge to do better. Then, vow to assume control of any meeting where someone raises the idea of a press conference by asking the following four questions (loudly and with authority) before going any further.

1. Why?

Be warned. When you ask this, people will look at you with horror. That’s good. Follow with a softer, “What is the point?” Okay. Maybe that’s not softer, but you get it. This feels like the place one might fill in the blank on a planning document that’s titled “Goal” or “Objective” except you don’t want to do that right now. That assumes the decision to hold a presser has been established and it has not. It also opens the door to hours of closed-door, writing-by-committee sessions and endless routing of review documents through chains-of-command who should be concentrating on their supply chains instead. Avoid that.

2. Who talks?

This is not the same question as “Who’s in charge?” or even “Who gets to stand up behind the speaker at the front of the room?” Those answers come later and, frankly, aren’t important right now. The first question informs this one but be careful this doesn’t become participation trophy time. Press conferences today often have enough people on the podium to perform a Broadway musical – and they all get time at the mic. This is painful for everyone. See first paragraph above for reference. While multiple speakers are necessary in some cases, more is not better. Ever.

3. Who’s invited?

This question will elicit smirks from your colleagues and the occasional eyeroll. The press, of course. But attendee-creep is a real thing. They didn’t make the cut to stand, quietly, up front so maybe they could be in the audience. We might need them to answer a question (never). Before you know it, your room has more company people than reporters. Looks matter and that looks bad. Pretend it’s a wedding dinner and every seat is a $100 plate. Third cousins twice removed don’t make the list.

4. When do I hold the rehearsal?

Carefully note how this question is put. It establishes two important points: There IS a rehearsal and YOU, the comms professional, are in charge of it. You are not a dictator, of course, so you will take input from others under advisement, but one person – ideally the pro in the room – is in command of the message and the people delivering the message. This is no one’s Woodrow Wilson moment to wing it. Watching a recent, much-covered presser with local elected officials, I found myself talking to only to the phone in my hand with increasing volume and irritation, “Stop. Stop talking. Really stop talking. Stop. Talking. NOW!” I was not the only viewer who felt that way. Believe me, you do not want to spend the days following your press conference issuing “clarification statements” because someone wanted Improv Night.

I cannot guarantee your next press conference won’t suck. Asking the questions others are too polite to ask, however, will greatly change those odds in your favor.

I pride myself on knowing words. And how to use them. That’s what people pay me for ‘lo these many years. There are more than a million words in the English language today, but less than 200,000 in regular use. And every day, new words come into play – whether we want them to or not. Sometimes it’s just old words in new ways. Again, whether we agree or not.

Imprinted permanently for me is the first time I, being paid to write, was called to task for a word I used. A word, having heard repeatedly around me in business circles, I was sure was the perfect word for my purpose. Early in my career – and eager to excel at my new corporate communications job – I sent a draft up to my subject matter expert. Among the comments returned was an emphatic, “This is not a real word. Change it!” The individual was an up-and-coming actuary* in the insurance company we both worked for. To be second-guessed by, of all things, an actuary was – shall we say – infuriating.

I left numbers to the actuaries and assumed they left the words to me. I went straight to the bible of words, the dictionary. Hmmm. The word was not there. I checked my next-best source: the Associated Press Style Guide. Ditto. I could not argue. I was humbled. It didn’t matter that myriad business articles and annual reports found this word acceptable, it would not appear in my article. Not this time.

The word? Proactive.

Yes, I know. It’s a word now. Along with Jedi and gig economy. I get conflicting answers about how often, and more importantly HOW, new words are officially added but our language isn’t static. That’s a good thing. Yet we abuse our Mother Tongue and to little gain. I am not talking about youth. Their slang is experimental, like their lives, and part of their growing. It’s also often fleeting (Daddio? Cool, dude?). Sometimes it becomes exactly what we need to express ourselves in a new world. Business and professional circles, however, are the harshest on our language, wearing it down to a stub with no regard to the consequences: miscommunication. Mass media provide the echo chamber.

Words are here to help us communicate. Emojis can’t do it all. When we fail to use words in ways that others will understand, we fail to connect. Relationships suffer. Outcomes fail. We are frustrated. Others turn away or give up. Or worse, they believe we meant something entirely different than what we intended.

I spend a good deal of my time with university students trying to impart the importance of language in how they’ll fare in the business world. Despite their protests, I delete points for clichés and jargon, reminding them of the more than a million words they have to choose from to explain, influence, communicate. And yet I know I’m sending them out into a culture that rewards beating a perfectly useful word like “synergy” into an empty outline of its former self.

I still try because I know there will come a time when they’ll be forced to have a conversation, an important conversation. Devoid of technology. They won’t be able to grab a meme to do the job. They’ll need to use words. And the words will count.

Postscript: The word “unprecedented” does not appear in the last print version of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary that I own, although I did find entries for unhinge, unfocused and unfruitful.

*This actuary went on to a long and celebrated career at this insurance company, culminating in a lengthy stint as CEO.

Open for business!  I caution my university students about the needless use of the exclamation point, but I’ve set it here quite purposefully. Entrepreneurs and existing businessowners alike are enthusiastic about grand openings and like to shout the news as loudly as possible. Over the years, I’ve done my share of communication programs around expansions, acquisitions and new endeavors. The strategy is simple: be visible where the people you can help are and be there often. This may or may not include exclamation points. Then why am I trying to be tiny and quiet as I open my own business?

I am certainly no stranger to the owner model. My father was the proverbial self-made man. He successfully started, grew and, ultimately, sold two businesses in his lifetime. These he ran simultaneously. This he did in addition to a profitable partnership with his brother for many years. As was his nature in all things, his approach was quiet but calculated. I did not pay much attention to his business acumen in my youth, except to note that he kept the doors open for decades and created a workplace of loyal employees who never wanted to leave.

I cannot imagine my father ever willfully using exclamation points.

Punctuation aside, both Starter Husband and Forever Husband are sole proprietors as well, yet neither launched their businesses with banners and fanfare. Steady and focused, but not … loud. Perhaps only those of us with marketing backgrounds think of direct mail, digital ads and free cake as obligatory for business openings.

So here I am, stuck in the middle of my marketing communication career habits and my life experience examples. More likely, this is Imposter Syndrome run amok. Am I worthy of exclamation points in my self-promotion? My father would not second-guess my past accomplishments, but he might caution me to “not get ahead of myself” and prove my worth with every client, every time.

That is my pledge, then: No platitudes. Just results. Every client. Every time.

Go head. Ring the bell for service. Open for business.