I hear a constant refrain: we need more business writing training! The circumstances vary but the themes are the same – we need people who can articulate clearly and with impact. There are many ways to surround this but the one I would like to suggest is that we teach poetry. Sound a bit mad? Here are the 4 reasons why it may not be.
We’ve become very informal in our communication – text messages and Twitter dominate – and that style of writing has infiltrated the business world. That is probably fine in most circumstances (I admit I’m biased against it), but it is not acceptable in formal writing like performance reviews, client proposals and board presentations.
For many professionals, the first draft is the final draft. For poets, in fact all creative writers, the first draft is merely step one – getting it out of the head and onto the paper/screen. It is filled, by necessity, with cliches and vagueness because these things crowd the first layer of our minds.
The mindset of drafting is critical because it means we are holding ourselves to a higher standard. In practice it means being willing to discard everything unless it has undergone a rigorous review.
In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Questions of Travel,” she develops the key line of the final stanza from an early “The choice perhaps is not great . . . but fairly free” to its final “The choice is never wide and never free,” – a far more evocative and confident phrase.
Her poem, “One Art” has 17 available drafts. In business, we are moving at the speed of life and the idea of 17 drafts seems absurd. But how much time do we waste trying to repeat and explain what we really meant?
Marianne Moore wrote, “Precision is both impact and exactitude, as with surgery”.
People tend to think as they speak, developing an idea as the words come out. Some are very good at this, others ramble. Have you met a rambler? You find yourself focusing more and more on just trying to follow the train of thought as the words collapse into a meaningless jumble.
In formal communication, rambling sounds like unpreparedness. I have heard from many people who are frustrated that people don’t seem to hear them and underneath their resentment is a real fear that their career will be limited.
The thing is, they’re right. We want people who can “say what they mean and mean what they say”.
Consider this famous poem by Ezra Pound, “In the Station of the Metro”:
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.”
Not only is it compact, the poem, with precision, evokes a powerful image. How much more is needed to evoke the slightly dehumanizing scene of a crowded metro?
Drafting leads to precision. The act of constantly looking for just the right word and the right order of words will create greater understanding not only of what you are trying to say but why.
Our VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity & ambiguity) environment appears to be here to stay. Uncertainty drives much of our demand for learning as people look for help moving forward.
Inspirational leaders provide vision. Like a lighthouse, these leaders shine a light through the fog and the first step is with their words.
In Howard Schultz’s book, Onward, he writes of the romance and theater of coffee. When returned as CEO, it was in part because he felt that this key element of Starbucks’ soul was being lost in the drive for growth. He evokes a scene that he remembered from his first trip to Italy where he saw people connecting in the fragrant cafes, whether they were in love, or relaxing or reuniting. It is a powerful image that began the process of Starbucks reigniting their passion.
That vision is highly personal and very authentic. But from the mind to the mouth is a long distance and the practice of poetry can help translate that emotion into an articulated vision that others can be inspired by.
In his dramatic masterpiece, “Kubla Khan“, Samuel Taylor Coleridge boldly describes a fantastical world with powerful visual images. But the poem wouldn’t be great if it didn’t evoke an emotional response as well.
Here are a few more poems that do the same thing but in very different styles; Billy Collins’ “Nightclub” and Rumi’s “At the Twilight“. These poems create worlds that are vivid and compelling and almost tangible. Imagine if our leaders could do the same.
Being afraid that writing poetry will lead to overly florid business writing is the same as some women being afraid that lifting weights will make them look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. It won’t. What it will do is help strengthen and tone your muscles and when it is time to write that shareholder’s letter or all staff presentation, the drafting, precision and imagery will help create a powerful vision your employees can rally around.
Recognizing that I may be at risk of going on too long myself, I’ll just say this. Knowing how to end is important (see ramblers above).
In Maya Angelou’s, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings“, the last line is the same as the title but the meaning and power has been intensified by the middle.
However, many people focus on the middle at the expense of a powerful end. So they either improvise (which leads to the rambling syndrome), trail off, or end abruptly with a “and…thank you for listening!”.
Poetry helps laser in on the last line and builds the discipline of endings. I’ll amend the proverb above with “Say what you mean, mean what you say, and then be quiet”.
I’ll leave you with Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” where a simple scene transforms into a contemplation of life itself.
The last two lines may help inspire you to try your hand at writing poetry. You don’t have to show them to anyone so be bold and dive in! Let me know what you find.
“I took the road less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”