Comm & Sense Blog

Welcome! Let me share with you thoughts and resources on communication and matters of common sense. Please comment and let’s start a conversation.

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When the writer becomes the subject

I am returning to professional pursuits after a year off doing the kind of scientific research none of us ever wants to do: undergoing cancer treatment. It is a unique experience to travel the same halls of a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center no longer as a curious journalist eager to tell the cool story about the cool research conducted by the cool scientist.

Now, I was just praying unceasingly that it was effective and life-saving.

I’ll admit that, at times, delving into journal articles and learning the mechanism by which different treatments worked was a way to help keep me grounded. I felt more empowered asking intelligent questions of my medical team and more like I understood what was happening in my body.

Other times, all I wanted was what any cancer patient wants: effective care, delivered expertly with compassion, support for side effects, and hope that I would one day be looking back on the experience instead of straight in the eye of it.

In coming days, weeks, and months, I will be writing more about what I learned as a cancer patient and how it shaped me as a science writer, communications professional, and human being. The bottom line for all, in a word, is “better.” The details of what that means are still unfolding.

Right now, I celebrate the new gift of life in remission! I have more profound respect and gratitude for all who work in any aspect of cancer research, treatment, or support services.

Most of all, my hat is off to fellow patients and caregivers travelling this journey, and all who gave me rides along the way, literally and figuratively.

And to those who have passed on to another place from this phase of the journey, I will never, ever say that you “lost the battle.” Instead, I pray that you dwell in everlasting peace where there are no more needles, there is no anxiety waiting for test results, and there is an unlimited supply of Lorna Doones on the volunteer angels’ carts.

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3 Ways to Harness Creative Ideas

hand drawing light bulbEver have that brilliant idea after the conversation or meeting was over? How many great ideas do you get while showering or brushing your teeth? Mine seem to flow the minute I pull out of the driveway.

Something about driving through wooded residential streets in my community or long stretches on the highway unleash all sorts of creativity. It’s as if the door to a certain room in my head opens and out pop clever thoughts and connections stored up there.

The hard part is my hands are busy and I can’t write them down. Also, I often have to focus on some non-creative task at my destination. Talk about an idea killer.

This means having to hold that wonderful brainstorm in my head while doing other tasks, which is stressful. Or, very often, by later in the day when I can give full attention to this bright idea, it has gone back into storage in my head with a padlock on the door.

If I am right, you struggle with this too. Here are three ways I am being more intentional about harnessing those thoughts and ideas to (a) keep them from slipping away, and (b) to reduce my stress level over worrying if I will be able to capture them later:

1. Use a voice recorder. That means keeping a digital recorder fully charged within arm’s reach in the car, or using the voice recorder app on my smartphone. The important thing is to designate some time later to replay and organize those notes. In the meantime, though, if I speak when the inspiration hits, I can relax. Often, that relaxation brings on further benefits creatively.

2. Keep a notepad handy in places where the muse often visits. That may be on the bedside table, in the bathroom, kitchen or even garage. I find that when my hands get busy on a less-intensive task mentally, like cleaning or gardening, that’s another time the ideas flow. Check out these ideas and tools for taking notes in the shower.

3. Optimize all reminders. Years before even sticky notes were ubiquitous my engineer father carried 3×5 index cards in his shirt pocket. When he had an idea or needed to remind himself about something, all he had to do was reach for a card and pencil that was right there. It must have worked, he retired with several patents. Today, we have our electronic versions, such as Evernote, OneNote and others, to record, organize and sync across all devices. I, personally, use a combination of putting reminders on my smartphone calendar and using colorful Post-it Notes®. Oddly enough, these aren’t actually where the brilliant ideas go. They are where I dump the tedium of daily life so that my brain is liberated for more creative thinking.

The point is to find what works for you. Experiment. Most of all, never let a good idea slip away.

Do comment and let me know what tools and techniques you have found that work and we’ll share. It just makes sense …

 

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Baby, we need some cold inside!

ice

It’s New Year’s Eve and it’s colder outside today than inside my refrigerator. Since I live below the Mason-Dixon Line, as the saying goes, “Houston, we have a problem.”

I have just triaged and salvaged what food I can to coolers lined up on the back porch. Save the cheese log, sacrifice the sticky bag of overripe bananas saved for some future baking event …

My mom often said that it wasn’t the holidays unless we had a major appliance go out. That’s why I love the line in Shrek the Halls when Donkey quotes his mom, “Christmas isn’t Christmas until somebody cries.”

I thought my mom was just being cynical, until my husband and I got to about the 18-year mark of marriage. We are at 22½ now and the last 5 years or so have brought one household, er, “inconvenience” after another. Many things – houses, appliances, and people – become a little worn by then.

In January 2010 we had an upstairs bathroom rebuilt, along with the kitchen pantry below it. An unknown plumbing leak had created a slow drip between floors and behind the walls, until I discovered mold in the pantry one day and looked up.

In 2011, my husband was a couple days out of the hospital from open heart surgery when this same refrigerator/freezer had this same problem – over Memorial Day Weekend. He sat weakly in a kitchen chair, that scary zipper of staples running down his chest, providing moral support while I defrosted the freezer with a hair dryer and wrangled two raucous kids.

A few days before Christmas of 2012, the sensor in the microwave went awry and a baked potato caught fire. Smoke damage meant emptying a 9×12 laundry/sewing/craft room chock-full of fabric and paper items, wiping everything salvageable with a chemical sponge, and then repainting.

December 2013 we cut the ribbon on our new driveway. It was the culmination of 18 months of haggling with insurance and rescheduling with a contractor, while driving back and forth over concrete rubble left by a too-heavy septic tank pump truck. Yes, it takes a lot of s*** to crush a driveway.

So here we are ringing out 2014, with hair dryer in hand again. Ironically, I had been spending time in my home office this morning planning the New Year for my business. I was feeling very smug about setting strategic goals and vowing to compartmentalize my home and work life more so as to increase focus and decrease stress. It all made perfect sense – until I discovered lukewarm milk in the fridge.

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Run Your Own Race

Kentucky Derby trophy

Who does not love an underdog? It’s the quintessential American success story. Rags to riches, the outsider besting the ones with the breeding, background and connections … We saw all of that play out Saturday in the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby. California Chrome, the first California-bred 3-year-old to win the Derby since 1962, showed the Kentucky blue grassers what was what.

It’s an archetype as old as David and Goliath. Underestimated or outright dismissed by others because he didn’t have the origin or trappings deemed prerequisites for becoming a champion, he stepped up and got it done.

As a small business owner in an often overwhelming environment of rapid change and information overload, I see a valuable lesson in California Chrome’s story. And, it is not the one that may first spring to mind.

Yes, this story is rich in examples of others around this Thoroughbred who believed in him. Despite the naysayers, the owners, the trainer and everyone involved in the journey to Louisville remained committed. Make no mistake, those who enjoy strong support, a network of believers who are invested financially or personally in one’s success, definitely benefit.

However, we should not underestimate what was going on between California Chrome’s own ears and in his heart — or perhaps more importantly what was not. We can only speculate, of course, but it is pretty safe to say he wasn’t focusing on the talk about his light breeding (Mom is an $8,000 mare; Dad is a $2,000 stallion), or that he came from a state that hasn’t bred a Derby winner in 52 years. Did he worry that his trainer is not one of the big names typically associated with the Mint Julep crowd, or dwell on the fact that his owners are one-horse good ol’ boys?

I like to think that California Chrome didn’t think very much at all. I picture a hardy creature letting his instincts, talent, training and competitive spirit take over when he went into that starting gate. I take heart in the strength, drive and determination that trumped all the analysis and overthinking by the humans around him.

In other words, he ran his own race.

As business owners and professionals, does this mean we should disregard analysis of the competitive environment or strategic use of resources to affect the best outcome? Certainly not. The warning though is to not let all that analysis – or against-the-odds findings from it – cause inertia. Sometimes it is simply time to show up, kick some dust and get it done in whatever race we are meant to run.

In my book, every horse, jockey, owner and trainer who was in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday is a success story. Each has a story of perseverance, heart and hard work that brought them to that first Saturday in May. Each has something positive to take from that experience to last a lifetime, whether it includes roses and a trophy, or not.

Each of us has a race to run that is uniquely ours. Sometimes it is wise to simply put the blinders on, put our heads down and just go.

So tell me, what race are you running today?

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2 Ways to Eliminate Unwanted Snail Mail

Too much snail mail-2I am on a clearing spree, determined to eradicate my desk, my house — my life –of so much paper. Unfortunately, I keep getting side-tracked from that task by working on managing and clearing the cyber clutter in my life, too. It is part of my quest to adhere to some belated New Year’s Resolutions (see last post).

In the midst of it all, my husband and I are assimilating belongings from the home of one of our parents who recently died. So, our family life of the past two months has seemed like we are the kids with our fingers in the dike while we duck the oncoming deluge of furniture, personal belongings and kitchen utensils. It still keeps coming at us, even as we sell and donate in regular batches. I think we are up to several hundred 1-gallon zip freezer bags in inventory now. Never mind the emotional stress of deciding what to keep and what to part with, but I digress.

One particularly painful/pesky aspect of this whole process has been the onslaught of snail mail solicitations addressed to our family member. Today I decided I’d had enough and pass along this tip that I just used to, hopefully, reduce the stack of envelopes, free address labels, credit card offers and catalogs.

The Direct Marketing Association has a website, called Give Your Mailbox a Makeover, where you can purportedly “manage” the offers and catalogs you receive from retailers, nonprofits and credit card companies. Once you register and login, you can select from an alphabetical list those organizations from which you want to request mail or removal from their lists. There also is a link to register for the Deceased Do Not Contact List.

My first effort was fast. A major retailer that sends me thick glossy catalogs several times a month had a fairly straightforward process for entering my customer number off the catalog label. A charitable organization that I wanted to remove my family member from offered a link to an email address, where I typed in a quick note requesting removal. Then the process started to bog down. The third organization I found listed only a long-distance (not toll-free) number to call customer service. The fourth and fifth organizations I sought were not listed at all. Two of my own favorite charities that pester me with too many donation requests list telephone numbers, only one is toll-free though. Hmm.

The promise is that “within 3 months,” these actions should stop the flow of mail. Interestingly, you can buy a house or have a baby and the solicitations for home improvement products and child life insurance policies practically beat you home. Join AARP or graduate and, well, you get the drift.

If you have experience with the DMA’s website tool, or other methods for clearing the clutter, I’d love to hear them. Let’s start a conversation!

And before my PR and marketing colleagues think I have become a turncoat, just remember how much effort the industry puts into copywriting and special appeals to get messages through. In the end, we are all better off, no matter which side of the sales pitch we are on, with less noise in the channel.

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The Right Time for 3 New Year’s Resolutions

7K0A0223

For some of us, January 1, isn’t the ideal time to go into New Year mode by starting new endeavors or making resolutions. Projects carry over, like one of mine did this year, and deadlines January 31. Only after that can we clear our desks and think purposefully about what comes next.

Sometimes we just live on a different schedule and the New Year starts at another time. My son attends a year-round school and his new year always begins around January 10. My daughter graduated from one rigorous program and began another on January 29, this year. My husband’s organization was in budget retreats in mid-January. Heck, I completed some medical testing and got good results – and a new lease on life – on February 6.

Thus, despite seeing stores piled high with plastic bins for organizing, TV commercials for weight loss plans and my inbox crammed with ads for exercise products, I have tried to keep my head down and focus on the right timing for my business and me, personally, to address New Year’s resolutions, which happens to be now:

1. Embrace imperfection. This is a big one for me, and writing a blog post about “late” resolutions is a step in the right direction. I’ve lost count of how many other blog posts I’ve written in my head and never put out there for fear of looking, well, imperfect. More importantly, how many articles have I not pitched or other projects held back on because I was waiting for better timing. It’s laughable that I did not sign up to take Oprah’s Lifeclass presentation of Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, because I believed I had too much going on and couldn’t give it the perfect level of attention that I wanted to. This leads to …

2. Dive in. The list is huge of ideas and projects put on the back burner while I attended to other “wolves closest to the sled” or “fight fires,” to use the worn-out clichés. How many of those do you have? Thoughts about unfinished business drag down creativity and productivity in the present and just make the reach for them even farther beyond our grasp.

Thus, I am taking a two-pronged approach. One, I am doing something every day to deal with the tedious maintenance of my business (taxes, clearing out old paper files, eradicating cyber clutter). And, two, I am rewarding myself with something every day that fuels creativity or addresses my future, more fun, long-term goals (exercise, networking in new places, polishing a new skill). That way, the backlog gets smaller each day, but my life and business does not stay on hold until it is completely gone. This balanced approach keeps me fresh, energized and positive. Meanwhile, …

3. Take stock. This seems counterintuitive as New Year’s Resolutions are mostly about moving forward with new habits. However, before you move forward, you need to understand where you’ve been. What is propelling me forward this year is a new-found confidence about having handled well many projects and life events of the past one. I will draw upon them in subsequent posts, but suffice it to say that pausing to process helps us glean lessons learned and find perspective. On this firmer foundation we can build and grow in unexpected directions.

After all, every day is an opportunity to begin anew, not just January 1st.

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Personal Best

Today’s personal best.

Today began on a celebratory note. My 10½-year-old son rode his new bike to the bus stop. Without training wheels. This is a milestone event in every child (and parent’s) life, worthy of hugs, high-fives and emailed snapshots. When your child has a developmental disability marked by struggles with gross motor coordination, this moment is especially sweet. After fearfully asking me to be nearby, he took off like a rocket around the corner toward the cul-de-sac. It was our personal version of the Tour de France leader circling the Arc de Triomphe.

The confidence in his eyes and strength in his voice as he announced to neighbors, “This is my first time riding without training wheels!” blotted out those dejected strike outs in baseball or after-school tears about not getting picked for a kickball team. We have been told more than once to view raising a child on the autism spectrum as a marathon, the advice being to pace ourselves and take care of ourselves along the way; expect milestones to come later, but to come nevertheless. Given the day or moment, that frame can be very exhausting, especially if we compare ourselves to neuro-typical families. Framed as a series of 5Ks against ourselves though, it opens up the possibility to wildly celebrating a series of personal bests over the long haul.

This has been a week of contemplating personal bests amidst an event showcasing someone’s personal worst as our nation reels from the explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Especially striking has been the loss of an 8-year-old boy who was cheering from the sidelines. He was there simply to inspire and be inspired by so many who bring their bests to this seminal event. Stories abound of underdogs who have overcome so many obstacles to even compete in or complete it. This tragedy sadly mirrors the death of a 9-year-old girl in the shootings in Tucson, who attended Rep. Gabrielle Gifford’s political event simply to learn more about government.

I wish I had words of solace for the families and friends of those lost to and injured by these acts. What I do hope will continue is our witness to the undaunted personal bests of so many who are running toward rather than away from these events. Let us celebrate the first responders, strangers opening their homes to displaced travelers, the skill and fortitude of event organizers and hospital personnel and, of course, the courage of those whose lives were forever changed on Monday.

May the worst of any terrorist, foreign or domestic, never let us fear striving for our best.

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New Apps for Old Skills

There’s nothing quite so pathetic as a blog started with enthusiasm and then left to go dormant after only a few postings. Guilty as charged, but this time I have a valid excuse for my absence to take to the principal’s office.

Shortly after launching the new website and blog in earnest, my family needed me to shift gears and apply my skills to caregiving for several folks with significant health needs. What I thought might require my stepping to the professional sidelines for a month or so stretched to six. There’s nothing like real life to humble the type-A perfectionist.

Yet I am appreciating that the experience has not only presented many personal growth challenges and opportunities, it has actually allowed me to continue practicing my professional communication skills in some new and interesting ways.

I realized this the other day when I discovered that I was not only clearing a flower bed and planting some grass as a therapeutic embrace of a beautiful spring day – I was editing my backyard! Lush healthy grass was choking the daffodils and Knock Out® Roses, while an unsightly patch of red clay interrupted green lawn nearby. These were remnants of a septic system repair last fall where workers ripped through fescue and top soil to reroute a line, leaving only the clay, straw and a few measly grass seeds too late in the season to germinate. With trowel and a bucket of compost in hand, I was effectively cutting and pasting grass where it really needs to be, not to mention feeling in control of something.

My organizational skills are tested and honed each day as I seek to tame the onslaught of junk mail, snail mail, email, insurance, receipts, changing medication regimens, recording of side effects, juggling of appointments, trips to the pharmacy and grocery, while performing acts of laundry, bill paying and the occasional household repair. I am the official reminder, calendar keeper and go-to person about missing coats, shoes, lunchboxes and homework for family members with deficits in executive functioning, despite my own “middle-aged moments” of same. No worries about those multitasking skills slipping from disuse.

What have especially enjoyed a regular workout are common PR skills, such as empathy, anticipation of needs and creative responses to crises, real or imagined. Framing theory was central to my doctoral work in communications and never has it had better application to the raising of two children with special needs. Just yesterday I helped one reframe his “jealousy” of the extra attention his sister has received lately to “a need for some one-on-one time with Mom over, say, a board game after dinner.” One frame is of a painful out-of-control feeling and unmet need, the other is validation of that need and a specific plan for meeting it. Ironically, the later board game time was interrupted by a meltdown over forgotten homework during which I got to – no lie – coach my 4th-grader on how to write a news story and headline.

A colleague of mine in PR once quipped that if she could get her 4-year-old to eat broccoli, why should she feel intimidated about pitching The Wall Street Journal for a client? She is one of many along the way who have offered much-welcome levity and perspective.

Not long ago I feared being sidelined forever professionally and guilty for pining away for a career while my loved ones need me so much. Lately, I have come to realize that interruptions, crises and even adjustments to a new normal actually do strengthen us. And, in the end, all kinds of avenues open up which are not otherwise available without venturing on the side roads of life’s journey.

Until next time …

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Good Health With Communication

Today is the Feast Day of St. Luke, patron saint of physicians, painters and some others. Considering my many interactions with health care personally and professionally, it seems fitting to reflect on how communication and common sense are often so vital to healing. Last week a family member wound up in the emergency room and an overnight hospital stay for tests, which, fortunately, turned out negative. The whole ordeal was a false alarm, but we needed high-tech medicine to determine that. While I am tempted to go on a rant about the delays, mistakes and inefficiency we experienced, I am instead going to focus briefly on (1) how grateful I am that my family and I live in the 21st century, rather than Biblical times, in America’s City of Medicine with health insurance and (2) the role of some different types of communication so important to the healing process.

Aside from physicians, equipment and meds, healing involves a lot of communication:

One-on-One. Hospital personnel have to share data and instructions from one level in the hierarchy to another, from one shift to another and with the patient as well. It seems like common sense to get this right, but whether one does can actually be the linchpin for good or not-so-good outcomes.

Word-of-Mouth. Patients and their loved ones share information with each other. I did that this morning when I gave the contact info of a favorite physician and suggested a med to ask about to a woman I encountered who was unburdening herself about the health struggles of one of her family members.

Online Information. Wow. Where to start? The Mayo Clinic’s YouTube channel, Twitter, e-newsletters to health organizations, health media, websites of federal agencies and major nonprofits who advocate and disseminate information – I’ve used all of these in just a few hours today. My own doctors have at times suggested I look up a term or more detail online to learn more about a health situation.

Online Support. I currently receive notices and reciprocate support through Caring Bridge to three friends who are struggling with serious illness. Research has shown that patients who have a strong social support network fare better in dealing with serious illness and side-effects of treatment. Other sites, like Take Them A Meal, allow local friends to provide tangible help that can make a huge difference.

This is just a start, and mostly things we take for granted in 2012. Still, it is worth it take a few moments to be grateful for some communication tools we do have and to reflect on ways each of us can use them to do an even better job of helping each other to heal.

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Happy Birthday!

My day began with my son bouncing through the house, giddy that it is his 10th birthday. It is also the fourth birthday of my business, now known as Comm & Sense, LLC. Two good reasons to bake a chocolate cake, which I did! As both a mother and entrepreneur, I have been reflecting today on the past decade and most recent four years. I’ve also been remembering graduating into the previous Great Recession over 25 years ago and “freelancing” then by default because “real jobs” were scarce.

Well, this time the foray into working as an independent writer and PR consultant was purposeful, if ill-timed. Nevertheless, my youngest child had begun kindergarten. It was time to fertilize the seed of a business plan to go for that elusive work-life balance. Take existing skills and experience to the marketplace and get busy learning social media. Here’s a big thank you to my clients and all who have lent encouragement along the way.

They say write what you know, but it has turned out that sometimes I was writing just ahead of or in tandem with very real personal experiences. Who knew that as I wrote about the amazing biomedical research going on at UNC in diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia and autism, I’d be living so close to those issues personally? I find hope every day knowing that the commitment to finding causes, answers and treatment is huge. So, it just makes sense to keep writing about what comes next to find out where the journey takes us. If you’d like to join me and support two timely endeavors, here’s how:

Autism Society of North Carolina – Triangle Run/Walk for Autism, October 13, 2012

 

Breast Cancer Awareness Month – Cornucopia House Cancer Support Center (for all touched by all types of cancer)

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