Storytelling Lessons from Broadway and Atlanta Stages

Book-of-Mormon-690x310fun_homeStorytelling thoughts from a recent trip to New York, where I caught a couple of master classes about character, point of view and theme on Broadway — both with some great songs, too.

“Book of Mormon” and “Fun Home” aren’t just Tony-winning musicals. They’re both fascinating examples of art that’s about art – in this case, writing about writing.

In “Mormon,” a young missionary has to wing it when Africans ask to hear the story of his religion’s, uhm, genesis. It’s funny and profane and super-tuneful – and his impromptu take on the meaning of life unexpectedly proves as inspiring as any version any believer could hope for.

With “Fun Home,” an adult woman looks back on her troubled father and, through her cartooning and writing, tries to make sense of her family chaos.

Both shows reveal themselves to be about the power of storytelling – how we all create or consume art to make sense of things we can’t understand. You laugh at “Mormon” and get goosebumps at “Fun Home.”

Walking around the Theater District, I couldn’t miss ads for “Wicked,” another musical about storytelling — about looking at one of the most famous characters of all time from a different point of view.


Oh, she’s wicked, all right. And that’s enough for me.

I’ve never wanted to see it because, to me, the Wicked Witch of the West neither has nor needs a back story. She is evil, pure and simple. She wants to kill Dorothy to get the ruby slippers so she can rule Oz. That’s it.

Still, back in Atlanta, I saw the Alliance Theater’s production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and wondered what that tale  would look like from Nurse Ratched’s point of view.

Call me crazy.

All this reached its apex when I saw “Stupid F—ing Bird” at Actor’s Express in Atlanta’s West Midtown.


A scene from “Stupid F—ing Bird” at Actor’s Express

Theater folk can tell you it’s an update of Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” I can tell you it poses interesting questions about art and how much is too much – even whether we’d all be better off under a 100-year moratorium on the stuff.

“Bird” takes the self-gazing one step further, into meta-fiction. Characters address the audience and talk about the play they’re in. It’s amusing, maybe insightful, definitely an attempt to goose theatrical devices.

Turns out I didn’t have to fly to New York to find that.

And this is all good fodder for anyone writing anything. What’s a story? What material is presented? From whose point of view?

As communicators, what do we want the audience to feel, think or do?

Curtain up.

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On the jargon runway, is this why people love it?

jargon.PNGAnother buddy from my newspaper days has started working in corporate communications, one more straight shooter struggling with jargon and other biz-speak gobbledygook.

That’s hardly news, at the end of the day. (“19 Worst Examples of Jargon of 2014.”)

But this might be. My friend seems to have found an answer to the eternal cosmic question: Why in the world would anyone use these nonsensical words, phrases and non-words, when simple, plain English is always there, just waiting to be used (NOT utilized)?

Before we get to his explanation, though, let’s enjoy some of the new terms he’s been struggling with in his day-to-day role.

  • bbbWing to wing — instead of comprehensive.
  • Solve — as a noun.
  • Runway — “I’d like to have a meeting with you, but I’m out of runway for the month.”
  • Goal –– as a verb.
  • Lift — as a noun meaning an imposition.

That’s one my friend has slipped into using. He doesn’t like it, but he’s surrounded by jargon all day now. Sometimes, he can’t win.

“Who knows why I used that,” he told me. “Why did I not just say, ‘I hope it’s not too much trouble’ instead? There are so many options. It’s awful.”

Here we get to the solution (NOT solve).

“Am I trying to impress somebody?” he went on. “Because it’s not really impressive. Maybe I’m just trying to fit in. Is that why people talk like this — not to show they’re smart, but just to show they fit in?”

Could be, buddy. And maybe that’s why all those years in newspapers we talked about “slugs” and “perp walks” and “news hole.”

But I’m still gonna shout “Rewrite!” if somebody asks me to goal a wing-to-wing solve.

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From Alaska, Why Naming Things Is Important

Alaska, map, Wasilla, Denali, McKinley, wildlife, beautiful scenery, hunting, fishing, salmon, bear, moose, cabin, camera, Facebook, video, family, wolf

My sister Sammye out with the dogs, The Great One behind her

You’ve heard of Destiny’s Child – but how about Denali’s Child?

Read on about a whopper of a story involving an assassinated president, Native Alaskan lore, a long-brewing political fight over North America’s tallest peak, and even a lesson about the power of naming things.

This week, the Obama administration restored that mountain’s original name, which is Denali, a native Alaskan word for “the great one” or “the tall one.” It had been called Mount McKinley for a century or more.

I lived many years in the 49th state, off-and-on until I was 30. This week’s news kind of surprised me — I guess I thought the name had already been changed. (Just Denali National Park in 1980 — the mountain itself was left unchanged then.) My friends and family in Alaska are delighted by the news.

“Everybody up here has referred to it as Denali for years anyway and says it’s about time,” my brother-in-law Andy McGinnis told me.

“But we can still call Wayne Gretzky ‘the Great One,’” added my buddy Beth Bragg, sports editor at the Alaska Dispatch News (which used to be the Anchorage Daily News, where I worked after college).

A long time coming

President William McKinley, Mount McKinley, Denali, Alaska, mountains, naming, branding

President William McKinley

For more than 100 years, Denali was called Mount McKinley, for William McKinley, the nation’s 25th president, who never set foot in Alaska. (Read the full Dispatch story.)

Alaskans always resented the slight to the Native culture — and the big-footed arrogance of the Lower 48. And newcomers are quickly instructed, “Real Alaskans don’t call it that.” (Some Alaskans are so real they can’t even say the word “McKinley.”)

For decades, Alaskans on all sides of the political spectrum wanted “McKinley” replaced with “Denali.” But Ohio, home of the president McKinley, kept blocking the effort. This week, Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he is “deeply disappointed” by the change.

A lesson in branding

My friend Mike Vanausdeln lived in Anchorage for about 10 years before settling in North Carolina. He wrote this trenchant piece for his branding company.

“By calling the mountain Denali, Alaskans were re-affirming their self-reflecting brand that said we were more authentic than those peons who called it Mount McKinley. The power of Denali proves the power of naming.

“I can hear my Alaskan friends now: ‘Oh, big deal. We’ve been calling it Denali for years.’ Just by saying that, Alaskans (and former Alaskans like myself) are stating who we believe we are when we lived there.


Alaskan family values

Alaska, map, Wasilla, Denali, McKinley, wildlife, beautiful scenery, hunting, fishing, salmon, bear, moose, cabin, camera, Facebook, video, family, wolf

My brother-in-law Vince casts his line in one of Alaska’s countless rivers.

My favorite response came from another brother-in-law, Vince Pokryfki. He says the second-highest mountain in the Alaska Range is officially known as Mount Foraker, also named for an Ohio politician. The Native name is Menlale, meaning Denali’s Wife.

The third-highest is Mount Hunter, after a relative who paid for a climber’s expedition way back when. Its original name, Begguya, means Denali’s Child.

“Doesn’t get any better – the perfect family,” Vince says.

And that’s a story even John Boehner ought to love.

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9 Easy Tips for Talking to the Press

Jay Croft, Atlanta, writer, newspaper, Journal-Constitution, Cox Enterprises, storytelling, corporate communications, content, gay, pop culture, movies, music, TV, Poncey-Highland, Virginia-Highland, Inman Park, Old Fourth Ward, who is a good writer in Atlanta, public relations, marketing, social media expert

As a former journalist, I’m sometimes asked for advice about speaking with reporters. Just this week, for instance, I addressed a group of healthcare professionals who want to get quoted in the press and to raise their media profile as experts.

They’d never been interviewed before, and they wanted my advice for what to do when they’re connected with a reporter.

This has come up frequently in my experience in corporate communications, as well, and in digital and social media. I’m always happy to have these interactions and to share a few tips, including these.

1. DON’T start the conversation by saying, “What’s your angle?” It’s defensive and somewhat insulting. Better to say something like this: “I’m happy to help if I can. What’s the story you’re working on?”

2. DO know who’s calling. Reporters are not investors or analysts — they don’t have time or interest in the James Michener version of the topic. And a journalist from, say, a trade publication might be seeking a different level of depth than your local daily.

3. DO have two or three key points sketched out in advance of the interview. It’ll help you stay on track and to keep your responses short, simple and quotable. That will increase your chances of making it into the story, whether it’s in print, online or for broadcast.

4. DO humanize the story. Reporters often need real examples to bring stories to life. Make it easy on them with credible, compelling people and contact information.

5. DON’T think you have to have an answer for everything. If you don’t know, or if you’re uncomfortable discussing something that might be outside your scope, just say something like, “I’ll have to look into that and call you back. When is your deadline?”

6. DO return the call – on time. Reporters are often busy and stressed out – especially today when newsrooms have fewer staff members than ever. You can establish a good relationship by doing what you say you’re going to do, and by honoring basic courtesy like this.

7. DON’T ask to see the story before it’s printed or airs. Better to say, “Feel free to call me back or email me if you have any questions later.” That way, a reporter will feel confident fact-checking if he or she needs to.

8. DO pitch your own ideas for follow-ups and offer yourself as an ongoing resource to the reporter. A good one always wants to meet smart, savvy people on their beats – not just when they need a quick quote.

9. DON’T lie. Seriously.

How about you? Any questions or suggestions? Let me know!

Little Girl’s Perfect Little Story Will Make You Smile

Bella Ortega, flowers, sunflowers, kid, child, girl, garden, gardening, happy, smile, story elements, perfect little story

Bella blossoms along with her flowers. Click to make bigger.

Here’s a short story that can help all writers in our search for content.

My friend Evelyn Amaya Ortega posted this photo of her 8-year-old, Bella, on Instagram and Facebook with the following caption.

She planted the seeds. She waited patiently all summer as the plants grew… And grew… Getting taller and taller. This week, the flowers bloomed. #Happy

More than 140 people liked the photo on Facebook, including writer Karen Rosen who astutely noted, “That is a perfect 24-word story with illustration. It should be in a magazine.”

I agree. Evelyn’s short tale contains all the elements of a narrative. Character, location, conflict, rising action, climax — even a sweet denouement.

The next time someone tells you they don’t have enough material or space to craft a story, show him this.

In business writing, the same holds true under the content-marketing definition of story. The image and text are compelling, engaging and emotional. They could hold the interest of customers looking to buy flowers, seeds, tickets to a summer camp or even in a Public Service Announcement about good parenting and spending time with your kids.

Look at that face! That smile!

That’s a story, by any definition.

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13 Easy Tips for Better Storytelling, Content Marketing

Ann Handley, Content Rising, content marketing, Skyword, Tom Gerace, Robert McKee, storytelling, brand journalism, everything the light touches is content, The Lion King

As I like to say, “Stories are everything, and everything is content.” Thanks to Ann Handley for this clever way of putting it, which she shared at Content Rising in Boston.

What’s the difference between a story and a narrative?

Between a story and information?

And what does it mean to run #LikeAGirl?

Such were the questions about 300 content marketers, storytellers and other media pros discussed last week at a conference I attended in Boston. Content Rising, put on by the Boston-based Skyword agency, focused on how to engage audiences with useful, compelling content — articles, video, photos, social media and more. It was one of those energizing experiences you hope for from a professional gathering, with lots of smart people, goodwill and creative energy bouncing around.

I love how events like this get covered now via Twitter. It’s like having a roomful of reporters sharing best quotes and reactions. Here are 13 tweets from the experience that give a pretty good overview of what’s being discussed about content marketing and storytelling these days.

Marketing Stats amid the Media Evolution

Tom Gerace, founder and CEO of Skyword, opened with stats that show brands need to stop interrupting what consumers want and instead become what they want. Take a look at these photos. Marketers believe their work has changed more in the last two years than since the dawn of television. On Facebook, 15 billion pieces of content are posted each month.

Storytelling Tips from a Master

Robert McKee, a screenwriting coach and author on storytelling, shared some thoughts on what  a story is and is not — and pointed out that young adults and teen-agers are too smart for traditional, B.S. marketing that’s little more than bragging.

I love a wise curmudgeon who calls people on their B.S.

Finding Your Voice

Author Ann Handley is always thoughtful, engaging and entertaining. Handley says finding the right tone and voice is the “secret sauce” of effective content marketing.

Look for little opportunities to enliven such traditionally dull, perfunctory spots as the “About Us” page with copy that can be fun and deliver your brand voice.

Finally, A Few Words on Innovation

Dan Pallotta, inventor of multi-day AIDS and breast cancer walks, closed with some inspiring thoughts on innovation.

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How to Link Your Love for Food and Travel

Atlanta Curb Market, Atlanta Municipal Market, Atlanta, Curb Market, Martin Luther King Historic District, Sweet Auburn, black history, African-American history, produce, meat, pork, Grindhouse Burgers

Love the neon sign in the middle of the Curb Market

Everybody loves food and travel, right? Put them together and you have a dream vacation when you’re traveling, or a great itinerary when guests come.

Millions of Americans consider the availability of food (and drink) activities when making travel plans. That can mean going to Northern California for tours and tastings in wine country, or looking for cheap, local eats wherever you happen to be headed. The “culinary tourism” trend isn’t slowing down, according to foodie experts gathered to discuss it in Atlanta this week with PR and communications folks.

It was a great conversation, with interesting points about Georgia and metro Atlanta’s top spots and trends.

  • We have our own “wine country” in the North Georgia that can make for a fun day.
  • Ethnic “niche” marketing is growing.
  • Buford Highway remains the best location for endless “hole in the wall” ethnic spots.
  • West Midtown is still booming with fun restaurants and shops in a few walkable areas.
  • I’ve gotta get to Gun Show.

But for me, the most interesting aspect was the setting: the Sweet Auburn Curb Market in the original Municipal Market on Edgewood Avenue. I’m ashamed to say I’d never been, and I felt like a tourist in my own town browsing the food and produce of 24 businesses – including produce and meat shops, a bakery, bookstore and about a dozen great little spots to eat.

Here are a few reasons why I’ll be taking my next out-of-town guests. There’s probably something similar in your town. Check it out. Here are just a few reasons why. (Click pics to enlarge.)

1. History

Atlanta Curb Market, Atlanta Municipal Market, Atlanta, Curb Market, Martin Luther King Historic District, Sweet Auburn, black history, African-American history, produce, meat, pork, Grindhouse Burgers

The market, built in 1924, is located within the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District. From the market’s website:

Whereas blacks were permitted to shop inside of the market when its doors opened, they were relegated to vend outside along the curb. Transforming that segregated time in the market’s history, it is today affectionately called the Sweet Auburn Curb Market, a name that was adopted in the 1990s. The name also reflects the market’s proximity to Auburn Avenue, which in 1956 Fortune magazine called “the richest Negro Street in the world” and was dubbed “Sweet Auburn” in a nod to that prosperity.

2. Streetcar

Atlanta Curb Market, Atlanta Municipal Market, Atlanta, Curb Market, Martin Luther King Historic District, Sweet Auburn, black history, African-American history, produce, meat, pork, Grindhouse BurgersThe market has its own stop on the new Atlanta Streetcar, which is free throughout 2015.

3. Miss D

Atlanta Curb Market, Municipal Market, soul food, Miss D's, praline, popcorn, soul food

Come in through the back door (where the parking lot is) and you’ll encounter delightful Miss D and her mouthwatering pralines, peanut brittle and gourmet popcorn.

4. Lunch

Atlanta Curb Market, Atlanta Municipal Market, Atlanta, Curb Market, Martin Luther King Historic District, Sweet Auburn, black history, African-American history, produce, meat, pork, Grindhouse Burgers, soul food

Atlanta Curbside Market, curb market, Grindhouse burgers


In Atlanta, ya gotta have your “meat and three.” The food court includes Metro Deli Soul Food, Grindhouse Burgers, Sweet Auburn BBQ, Tilapia Express, Awesome Juicery and more.

4. Produce

Atlanta Curbside Market, Municipal Market, produce, peppers, meat, poultry, MLK, soul food


Fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms. (Peanuts, too.)

6. Meat

pigs, pork, butcher, Atlanta Curb Market, Municipal Market, 1924, MLK, Atlanta, buy your whole pigs here



Because you never know when you’ll need a whole pig.

The food experts on the panel also gave some other suggestions for where to eat around town. I love how they weren’t focused on the most expensive spots. Good food is about more than white tablecloths.

  • Fred Castellucci, @fwc3, owner of The Iberian Pig, Cooks & Soldiers, and other restaurants:  “The new Victory Sandwich Bar in Inman Park is awesome. It’s a very cool spot and the guys who own it are super-nice. They do a great job.”
  • Kate Parham Kordsmeier, @KPKords, food writer: Depending on her mood, she loves Umi Sushi, Bocca Lupa, and Gun Show.
  • Lindsey Isaacs, @Explore Georgia, from the state Department of Economic Development: “If somebody says Six Feet Under by the Oakland Cemetery some time, I’m there in a heartbeat.”
  • Dale Gordon DeSena, @TasteofAtlanta, suggests people try something new, “a little out of your comfort zone,” at least once a week.

Great advice, Dale — whether you’re traveling or at home.

Thanks to the panelists and the Georgia Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America for putting the discussion together. 

One of Atlanta’s Most Exciting Chefs Takes It to the Streets

Westside Provisions, Atlanta, Westside, West Midtown, Hector Santiago, El Burro Pollo, Pura Vida, latin food, restaurant, latin restaurant, latin eatery, burrito, chicken burrito, Atlanta, street food, fair, market, Ponce City Market,

Chef Hector Santiago, of Pura Vida and Top Chef fame, serving his delicious burritos at the Westside Provisions District Farmers Market.

The Westside Provisions District Farmers Market, which just started for the season, was humming Sunday with sunny browsers picking up produce, handmade candles and kimchi. But the draw for me was Chef Hector Santiago, whose insanely missed Pura Vida tapas restaurant was my favorite spot in the city for years.

At the El Burro Pollo burrito stand, he rolled me up a  lunch so tasty it took me back to the orgiastic delights of Pura Vida — those flaky empanadas packed with juicy meat, the sweet and sticky pork puff pastries, the silky fresh seafood ceviche… and the avocado ice cream. Ah, yes and truly … the avocado ice cream.

Hector also had Pura Vida’s sister sandwich shop, Super Pan; appeared on “Top Chef;” and served as executive chef at Abattoir for a while. Lately, he’s been doing “pop-ups” like this one at fairs and markets around town. (You can keep up with his appearances on Facebook and Instagram.)

Hector Santiago, El Burro Pollo, Pura Vida, latin food, restaurant, latin restaurant, latin eatery, burrito, chicken burrito, Atlanta, street food, fair, market, Ponce City Market,

Santiago rolls up my lunch, El Burro Pollo.

Now he’s planning a one-night return on June 25 to Pura Vida, with a pop-up at the old spot, 656 N. Highland Ave., now home to Sweet Auburn BBQ.

Any of that avocado ice cream planned?

“Oh, man,” he said. “You know, I could do that as one of the desserts for the pop-up.”

And he says he’s about ready to share details of his upcoming spot, which could be El Burro Pollo or Super Pan. He didn’t want to talk about the location on Sunday, but media outlets have reported it will likely be in Ponce City Market.

That’s almost as close to my home as the old Pura Vida. I’ll take it.

Here are some pics from Sunday’s market. It will be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Sunday through September, at Howell Mill Road and 14th Street. Click a picture to make it bigger; mouse over to see the captions.

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Letterman’s Top 10 Tips for Better Communications

David Letterman, The Late Show, 33 years

Letterman keeps it real.

We all know David Letterman just ended his 33 years on late-night TV. You don’t have to be a comedian, or even a Letterman fan, to have picked up some communications tips from him over the years.

In keeping with one of his most cherished bits, here’s my Top 10 Easy Tips for Communicators  from David Letterman.

  1. Be yourself. Letterman was a goofball from the start, cranky, ironic and snarky. He was no Hollywood smoothie like Johnny Carson, and didn’t try too hard to make people like him, as so many do. He always was Dave, the one and only.
  1. Be consistent. Even on two networks and with two names, Letterman’s show was remarkably steady. They’d try new bits, of course, but it all felt of a piece, of one sensibility and in a respectful routine.
  1. Guide the discussion. That cranky side of his personality was a bit much sometimes, but he also knew how to keep bloviating celebrities in check.
  1. Branding, branding, branding. The Top 10 lists, Stupid Human Tricks, The Velcro Suit, Stupid Pet Tricks… What were your favorites? We’ve been talking about them all these years.
  1. Share the Spotlight. Paul Shaffer and the great band. Larry “Bud” Melman. Neighborhood deli owners. Audience members… Letterman was always the center of his show, but he knew that he shines best, and the message is best delivered, when he’s surrounded by a team that complements him.
  1. Share yourself, but not too much. Letterman’s been super-famous for most of my life, but I know almost nothing about him. His adorable, white-haired mother made a series of appearances. He talked about his health troubles and young son from time to time. But the show was about the audience, not the host’s personal life. That’s a nice, difficult balance of message and messenger.
  1. Be real when you need to be. Letterman’s style of “crisis management” was to drop the irony and reticence to be serious – notably in 2009 when he discussed an extortion plot and confessed to having affairs with staff members. The lesson for everyone: Address a crisis promptly, honestly and directly.
  1. Be versatile. Letterman seemed just as comfortable and skilled talking with presidents, movie stars and common folk. All communicators should strive for such a deft touch.
  1. Give good content. In addition to being authentic and consistent, Letterman’s show was funny. Very, very funny — almost all the time, night after night, for 33 years. If we all give our audiences a good product, we’re more than halfway home.

… And the No. 1 Easy Tip for Communicators  from David Letterman is… 

  1. Know when to wrap it up. Could Letterman keep going? Absolutely. But it’s always best to choose your own departure and craft it yourself, instead of being shown the door. Keep that in mind next time you’re writing a speech for a long-winded executive, or going on too long on, say, a blog post about skillful communications.

Love for Atlanta’s New Icon Looks Like a Good Sign: PHOTOS

(Click the pics above to enlarge; mouse over for captions.)

Ponce City Market, PCM, Atlanta, Ponce de Leon, Sears, old Sears building, Borders, Dancing Goats, apartments, retail, restaurants, new, cool, big project, redevelopment

It pops above Ponce de Leon Avenue.

The sign for Ponce City Market went up Sunday, and Atlanta’s newest icon was met with spontaneous applause from onlookers on the BeltLine.

Seriously. People had stopped to watch the crews work and to take selfies and other pics. And when the last piece of the sign — with the ‘PO’ —  was attached, they clapped and cheered.

That’s a lot of goodwill no one can buy.

And I took it as a sign for the positive buzz about Ponce City Market, the old Sears building on Ponce de Leon Avenue that’s being famously renovated into new office, retail and restaurant space. It’s a centerpiece and symbol for positive urban renewal, and we have a lot of that going on here in Atlanta. People are proud about it — the BeltLine, too. And Krog Street Market and more.

I was out riding my bike when I came upon the scene Sunday. I stopped to take a few pics, which I shared on social media. Within 24 hours, my Facebook and Instagram feeds had plenty of examples from other folks, too.

On Monday, I walked around the site a bit, as office workers were taking a King of Pops break. PCM has drawn Twitter, Mail Chimp, athenahealth and, possibly, Google. Inside, the Food Court is shaping up for an opening around the end of summer. Some of the shops and restaurants coming soon include:

  • Holman & Finch Burger
  • Anthropologie
  • Williams-Sonoma
  • Honeysuckle Gelato
  • West End
  • Simply Seoul Kitchen

Binders and Dancing Goats coffee have been open for a while.

Here are some more shots from the ongoing development. Mouse over to read a caption, and click to make them bigger. (And here are photos from more than a year ago. It’s fun to see the progress.)

More info on Ponce City Market’s website.