Networking. Strategic Planning. Business & Career Success.

Vickie Austin

A Blog About the Power of "Your Circles of Gold ℠"
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What I Learned as an Obit Writer

Graveyard

Back in the early 1980s I began my writing career as a journalist, and I use that word loosely. I had just graduated with a degree in English literature so didn’t have the “J-school” chops, but with luck landed a job at the Lawton Constitution & Morning Press as a “swamper.” No one ever defined the term “swamper” but I think we can discern what it implies. The job included taking information from area morticians by telephone to create the obituaries. I typed up the facts of the deceased’s life on a clackety old typewriter, using a big roll of yellow newsprint that stayed tucked behind the typewriter, tore the hard copy off from the typewriter platten and swirled around to the brand-new computer just installed in the newsroom, reformatting the facts into a life story.

This week I flashed back on this obit experience while watching a TED Talk by Lakshmanan “Lux” Narayan, a self-described perpetual learner and founder of Unmetric, a social media intelligence firm. Mr. Narayan begins every day, he says, with scrambled eggs and a through review of the obituaries in the New York Times. His TED Talk, entitled “What I Learned from 2,000 Obituaries,” is an analysis of what makes a life well-lived, gleaned from 2,000 obits run in the Times over 20 months. Using the mojo of analytics, Mr. Narayan breaks down the famous and unfamous, sharing that in addition to a natural advantage from having the name “John,” the people whose deaths are worthy of the New York Times are more often artists, thinkers, scholars and those who make a lasting contribution to the world through their work. The highlighted word that jumped out of both word clouds, famous and unfamous alike: “Help.” The noteworthy among us did something to help others.

This TED Talk and the recent funeral of my friend, mentor and former publisher Chuck Lauer, made me think about my own experience as an obit writer. In Lawton, Oklahoma, the obit page was rarely filled with Pulitzer Prize-winning economists or gone-too-soon rock stars. The people whose lives I recorded and dutifully wrote up in a defined, obit-style formula were often farmers, housewives and just plain folks. Sometimes the deceased were babies which had me weep while typing up their obits; other times the person’s achievements included producing prize-winning pickles for the county fair. At the tender age of 24, I was moved by the dramas, big and small.

What I learned as an obit writer is that all of us, at some point, will have our lives distilled to a few column inches or, if we’re lucky, a big story in the New York Times. Wherever your obit shows up you can be sure it will include the facts–birth, death, next of kin–as well as any highlights you’ve achieved along the way or, as one poet has alluded to, what happened “between the dash.” Whether we win an Academy Award or the blue ribbon at the county fair, the sum of our achievements most likely will be defined by how we helped others. Whatever our contributions, we can be sure it really had nothing to do with us, but rather, with whom we chose to make a difference. Who do you want to make a difference with today? How do you want to be remembered?

 

Ladies and Gentlemen, Serving Ladies and Gentleman

Chuck Lauer wraps it up

Back when my kids were small, they loved watching the movie “Goonies,” circa 1985. I’ll never forget the sound of Sloth, the monster-looking character, calling out to the gang of young boys, “Hey, you GUY-UYYYYYYS!” I think of this whenever I hear a leader, trainer or professional speaker call an audience “you guys…”

First of all, I’m not a guy. When I’m in the audience and I hear someone in authority, a leader speaking from the front of the room or from the stage or at the head of a boardroom table, call us “you guys” it makes me think of a gang of little boys (much like the one in “Goonies”) huddled out back in a homemade fort, the one that says “Girls Keep Out!” There’s a familiarity about the expression that seems at odds with the message.

While I know the phrase is meant to represent the collective audience, “you” or “you all” in the plural, there’s something about addressing a group of professionals as “you guys” that seems off. Call me old-fashioned (go ahead, I dare you) but language matters. When we are speaking to an audience, unless they are under the age of 13 I think it’s important to address them as “ladies and gentlemen.”

My former boss Chuck Lauer, taught me that. He was publisher of Modern Healthcare magazine for more than 30 years and he was vigilant about the importance of etiquette in business. He used to refer to the tagline of the Ritz-Carlton chain of hotels and resorts: “We are ladies and gentlemen, serving ladies and gentlemen.” That’s also how he referred to his audiences whenever he gave a speech and I learned to do the same. He was the consummate speaker, a leader and a powerful connector of people. Chuck, affectionately referred to as “Chuckles” by those of us on his sales and marketing team, died April 30 at the age of 86, leaving a legacy of wisdom in his famous Modern Healthcare columns, his books and the many friendships that will live on.

So the next time you’re in front of a group, think about who they are and choose your words carefully. How you address people impacts how they see themselves and how they behave as well as how they perceive and respond to you. Chuck was fond of saying that good manners never go out of style.

Photo: Chuck Lauer addressing the sales teams of all of Crain’s publications based in the Los Angeles office in 2007 during a sales boot camp he and I designed with Teri Louden and delivered in LA, New York, Akron, Detroit and Chicago.

 

Love and Work

Valentine's Day hearts

Today is Valentine’s Day, a holiday that reminds us of love. We mostly interpret that to mean “romantic love” or eros, which leaves the day fraught with peril for those who are between love interests. If you’re without a sweetheart, the day may be a stinging reminder that everywhere you look, someone else is getting a […]

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Help! I’ve Been Hijacked!

Airplane

Have you ever had that feeling that you’ve been hijacked? No, not literally hijacked on an airplane bound for Boston, then suddenly headed to Havana. But maybe you’ve been hijacked by someone else’s agenda. Perhaps you know the feeling of moving forward resolutely toward your own goals and objectives when suddenly, you find yourself writing […]

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Author, author!

church-ladies-book-launch

Last month we launched Circles of Gold: Honoring Your Network for Business and Career Success, a book I’ve been working on for, oh, about 10 years in one form or another. I wrote this version of the manuscript nearly two-and-a-half years ago while a guest at a fabulous brownstone in Brooklyn, NY. I tied myself […]

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What Would Dolly Do?

Mandolins ukes and dulcimer

In a hotel room at the Sheraton-Nashville, I was surrounded by beautiful photos of musical instruments–Gibson guitars, mandolins, close-ups of frets, strings and Fender guitar picks–all reminders that Nashville is the home of country music. I’ve been in love with country music since I was a girl and I saw Dolly Parton on the “Porter Wagoner Show.” […]

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Yearning for Order

A Well-Curated Life

There’s something about the beginning of a new year that has us focus on order–organizing, purging, out with the old and in with the new. My dear friend and Yoga Diva Lesley gifted me last year with the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo, […]

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Let’s Go Window Shopping

Window Shopping

On a recent trip to New York City I walked by Cartier, Louis Vuitton and other high-end shops with gorgeous window displays. I loved seeing the edgy fashions, the elegant accessories and the artful way in which they were featured. Even if the bling featured in the window was out of my price range, there […]

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Rest, In Good Conscience

Blue Sky Celtic Cross 2

Thirteen years ago I quit my “day job” as vice president of marketing for a local hospital in order to launch my coaching practice full-time. During the first week I had a conversation with God. (Before you call me crazy, know the conversation was, or at the time seemed to me to be, one-sided.) I […]

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Does This Plane Make My Butt Look Big?

Photo credit: Pixabay.com

Recently I’ve begun to travel more, thanks to a new contract with a consulting and training firm. This wonderful opportunity often requires me to get on a plane, meeting a colleague from the firm in another city where we then serve clients. I love it–serving the clients, that is. The travel is something else again.

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