Want to be a more creative communicator? Contain yourself!

Want to be a more creative communicator? Contain yourself!
April 25, 2019 Beth Nyland

I call myself The Corporate Poet and Cutter of Crap. I have tattoos and a nose ring. And I wear Wonder Woman high tops to work.

Some days, I swap the high tops for more formal footwear. But the tats and piercing are permanent, and the unusual title is part of my personal brand. In spite of my creative appearance—and because of my creative experience—even ultra-conservative companies pay me to help their people become more skilled and confident communicators.

Why? Because …

Creativity makes all the difference in how we communicate.

Any time you develop a message—whether you’re writing, presenting, managing, leading, or thinking on your feet—you’re committing a creative act. You might be introducing a new concept, or maybe rethinking an old one. Either way, you’re using ideas to make things happen. That’s creative.

The creativity I’m suggesting is not aimless or out of control. It’s purposeful and strategic.

Learn to love the limitations.

When I write for work, I “contain” myself by using boundaries to focus my time and ideas. That way, everything moves in the direction of business results.

These boundaries feature prominently not just in my own work, but in every Story Mode workshop Jill Pollack and I deliver. Jill, for example, is forever coaxing reluctant writers to describe a single moment in vivid detail. Me? I’m all about challenging corporate diehards to express themselves without crap terms like “integrated solutions,” “seamless ecosystems of optimization,” and “a bucketized approach to resource allocation.”

Super-focused writing prompts. Restricted vocabulary. These are just two examples of the many boundaries you can set to channel your creativity.

How do you decide where to set the boundaries?

Frankly, we make them up. But in an informed way.

For instance, before I even start to write, I stop and ask myself six key questions about the message, the audience, and the results I want to achieve. Jill and I have captured these questions in a tool we call the Story Starter. We use it ourselves, and we share it in almost all of our workshops.

Whether I invest five minutes or 45 minutes with this tool, it’s always valuable time. My answers to the questions create a set of boundaries that keep me from veering off course when I write.

I also depend on style guides and brand guidelines—or at least a handful of do’s and don’ts—as boundaries for things like punctuation, capitalization, and font size. When working solo, I trust these guides to answer questions and remove doubts about mechanics, which builds my confidence as a writer. When collaborating with others, shared guidelines help resolve differences of opinion. Instead of arguing about commas and colors, we can all focus on what’s really important: the message.

Boundaries lead to breakthroughs.

Even at the first draft stage, the most freewheeling part of my writing process, I use boundaries of time to motivate progress. First, I commit space on my calendar to write. A full-fledged appointment, with start time, end time, and an alert to remind me. Then, when it’s go time, I use a timer to sprint my way through the first draft. First, three minutes just to get started. When the timer rings, not only do I have a start, I have a choice. I can slow my pace and finish more deliberately, relaxing into the full duration of my writing appointment. Or I can set that timer again and keep sprinting. I almost always choose tiny bursts of timed writing. I’m fueled by adrenaline and fast results.

My sprint-induced drafts are seldom pretty. But once the words are on the page, I can use another set of boundaries to clean them up. For me, this means five passes through the work, each addressing a different shortcoming I’m sure to find—like missing or repeated words, long-winded introductions, and buried action items.

All these boundaries make writing feel like a game. Challenged by constraints, I have to be creative and fast and strategic. And I want to win. Eventually, I have to stop writing and press “send” or “publish” or “share.” Once the message is delivered, if I’ve played within and to the full extent of my boundaries, my audience will respond with action.

And that’s how business gets done.


What you’ve just read is an update of a piece I wrote in November 2015, back when Jill Pollack and I were teaching Chicago-area business people to write via the StoryStudio Words for Work program. Since then, we’ve expanded and rebranded this program Story Mode. We’ve recast ourselves not as trainers, but as “story whisperers.” Now, our Workshops, Writers Rooms, Creativity Labs, Coaching, and Creative Advisory Services are reaching teams and individuals far beyond Chicago (last week, Brazil!).

Because we #RefuseToBeBoring, we are happy and challenged and busy as all get out. But we are not too busy for more. So, let’s talk about how we can get YOU in Story Mode. Contact us today!

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