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?

No books were banned from my childhood home, that I recall. I did sneak a book about the infamous Bonnie and Clyde to my bedroom, but only because my mother wouldn’t let me see the movie. No, we were a very bookish household and my mother was a classic theater geek, so all literary pursuits were encouraged.

I always knew some books faced the ban. I could see why Lady Chatterley’s Lover might have raised eyebrows in its time but banning Huck Finn or To Kill A Mockingbird perplexed me. (As a child, I wasn’t much aware of race issues, growing up in my lily-white Midwestern town.) I didn’t even notice when Banned Books Week was established in 1982, set aside to raise awareness of the growing challenges to books. It followed the landmark Island Trees School District v. Pico Supreme Court ruling that school officials couldn’t ban books in libraries simply on content.

By the 90s, I had children of my own to introduce to beloved classics and to discover new ones (Hello, Harry Potter). I didn’t do everything right as a parent, but I did manage to raise two voracious readers.

People want to read. Since the invention of the Guttenberg printing press in 1440, books have made their way to those people. In 2020, I don’t worry about the demise of books. Print or digital, book sales are steady worldwide. People still want to read, but I don’t think they know how tenuous our freedom to read is.

We still need to have Banned Books Week every year because the attempt on censorship continues. Librarians, those quiet (Shhhh!) warriors of ideas, indefatigable defenders of our freedom to read, are on the frontlines for us. Too many (in my opinion) feel pressured to self-censor – meaning, they just don’t put a title on the shelves rather than find themselves having to defend a book that falls outside of some “norm.” Just buy a book instead, you say. Let’s check our privilege, I say.

Why do books get challenged in the first place? Well, sex – a lot of the time. And things related to sex. Quite often it’s the “coming of age” stories that find themselves under the “banned” banner. (Judy Blume fans know what I’m talking about.) Imagine thinking that if we don’t read about “coming of age” it will never happen. If only.

Vulgarity creeps into the banning formula regularly. I’m in the Word Business and I can’t imagine the poor sod who has to keep track of all the newest curse words in case they make their way into a book. Exhausting.

Race and ethnicity also raise eyebrows, apparently. I can’t change my race or my heritage, so I don’t understand why someone wouldn’t want me to read books that put me into someone else’s world. But that’s just me.

One topic not banned nearly as much as sex and swearing is violence. It’s there, but not as much as one would think if the intent on banning certain books is to protect our innocent ones from learning unsavory ways. I also didn’t find many challenges to books touching corruption. Of course, we’re conflicted about that one since corruption so often pays big dividends.

Before I step down from my soapbox, my stanch defense of books is not to silence individuals who disagree with particular content. I have my own list of books so poorly written they should have never seen the light of day much less a library, but that’s a different post. My argument against outright banning of books based on content is because it takes away the freedom of others to read and discern for themselves. I do not defend books with lies, weak research or plagiarized material – that is why we have editors, proofreaders and publishers. But I bristle at the idea of never having the choice to read The Handmaid’s Tale or The Hate U Give because someone else didn’t like the topics.

If you’ve read this far, do me a favor? Read a banned book this week (and Huck Finn doesn’t count). Exercise your freedom to read.

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.

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.

I snapped this image of the staircase in Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art then swung around to face a very bold, tersely worded sign banning cameras of any kind inside the museum. I paused long enough to note I wasn’t in danger of a docent tackle in my immediate future and carried on. Now, I’m not usually the type to seek out rules to break (although there’s a successful streak of begging forgiveness after the fact) but even if I had seen the sign, I likely would have ignored it.

The pattern of the staircase upward view was irresistible. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are drawn to patterns. This one drew me in. Here we have a logarithmic shape, named for us by that popular Middle Ages mathematician, Fibonnacci, who has an equation behind it that makes my head hurt. What my head prefers to focus on is the shape – the illusion of infinity, infinite possibilities.

The Golden Spiral as its sometimes called is found throughout the natural world, meaning Mother Nature was a popular mathematician long before Fibonnacci. Her most recognized spiral is the nautilus shell. The nautilus, you see, continually builds a new chamber because it’s continually growing. It always needs a bigger space to occupy. It does this throughout its life and there isn’t a design for a final chamber. Let me repeat that: it never plans a final chamber.

This is the key lesson the nautilus gives us – always be growing and expanding. And the footnote to this lesson is that the nautilus doesn’t shed chambers as it outgrows them. It keeps them as part of the whole. Its past makes it stronger, able to create an ever-bigger self.

I’d been looking for the appropriate metaphor to guide me through my own recent life changes. This pivot away from the familiar and toward the not-yet discovered. The Nautilus Shell, the Golden Spiral, the Museum Staircase – they show me a pattern that doesn’t diminish where I’ve been, but rather strengthens my opportunity to grow and expand.

Perhaps you’ll join me as I build out the newest chamber, climb the next flight? There may even be some new, tersely worded signs we can ignore along the way.