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“Your story is your power and your truth” – Author Gloria Feldt on advocacy writing

Photo of Gloria Feldt courtesy of MaryAnneRussell.com

Today we present an interview with Gloria Feldt – an author, blogger, and advocate for women. I met Gloria through my work at Arizona State University, where she teaches a course each spring relating to women, power and leadership.

Gloria is a former national president of Planned Parenthood, and author of the books “Send Yourself Roses,” co-authored with actress Kathleen Turner; “Behind Every Choice Is a Story”; and “The War on Choice.” Gloria’s most recent book is “No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power,” which recently came out in paperback. In that book, Gloria interviewed dozens of women politicians, business owners, and activists and concluded that the doors of opportunity are wide open today, but too few women are leading the way to claim their power and reach parity with their male counterparts. To counteract this, her book provides 9 practical “power tools” that help women to embrace their power in their relationships and at work, in order to lead unlimited lives.

In today’s interview, Gloria discusses how writing can be used to fuel one’s social activism, and how writers who want to change the world can make a living doing that sort of work.

You can keep up with Gloria’s writing and advocacy work at her website.

Give us an overview of your career, and the place of writing within the work you were doing.

I knew when I was five that I wanted to be a writer. I carried a notebook and pencils with me at all times. My teacher shared a poem I wrote about Halloween with the whole class and kept it to teach future classes. That sealed the deal.

But life intervened. As a teenager, I drank the cultural Kool-Aid and focused on being popular, especially with boys. After marrying and having kids, I fell into my career first as a Head Start teacher, then leading Planned Parenthood affiliate offices.

Though writing was always a part of my work, it wasn’t till I was 60, national president of Planned Parenthood, and had a board chair who made my life miserable, that I decided I had to start writing books or I would die inside. So that’s when I wrote my first book, “Behind Every Choice Is a Story.” Then a few years later, after writing “The War on Choice” and realizing that its thought leadership was greatly appreciated by the general public but not so much by those inside the organization, I knew it was time to speak in my own voice. It was time to free that five-year-old to fulfill her original vision for herself.

What was the first piece of advocacy writing you had published in the media? What did that experience teach you about yourself as a writer?

The now-defunct Phoenix Gazette published an opinion column I wrote exhorting moderates to get as passionate about advocating their beliefs as the zealous right or be steamrollered by policies they don’t support. That must have been in 1979, not too long after I became the CEO of Planned Parenthood in Arizona. The experience taught me the value of devoting the time and effort it takes to do cogent opinion writing.

And by the way, I was right.

Which of the “power tools” discussed in your book No Excuses involve writing?

All of them. Over and over, depending on the day. You write the book you need to read.

Certainly, writing is a part of

  • Employing every medium to get your words out,
  • Wearing the shirt of your convictions,
  • And it plays a role in telling your story, using what you’ve got, knowing your history, embracing controversy, carpe-ing the chaos, and defining your own terms.

Even in the case of the power tool of creating a movement, which seems like a communal act, writing plays a role, because advocacy always involves joining with others.

Yes, they all apply. They are versatile tools and tips to help anyone use the power of her or his words.

How does writing empower women?

Your story is your power and your truth. Women are too often looking for external validation. Writing is its own validation. It comes from inside.

How have your professional writing assignments changed over the years? What has stayed constant?

Blogging didn’t exist when I started out. Now I am asked to blog by many outlets and that has opened up new opportunities to showcase my thinking, though not necessarily to earn money.

What has stayed constant is that I write nonfiction, mostly opinionated in some way about the current social and political issues as they apply to women. I love controversy.

Has there been a new form of media or a new genre that you’ve found particularly daunting? How did you eventually master it?

I break out in a cold sweat about writing book proposals. I can write the book but the proposal daunts me. I have not mastered it.

What new writing projects are you most excited about now?

My next book, but I can’t talk about it yet.

I’m starting to blog for ForbesWoman.com, which is exciting because it puts me in contact with women in the business community and expands my knowledge of their concerns.

What tips would you give to readers interested in using their writing skills to advance a cause?

Think first of being a thought leader and second about being an advocate. It’s a subtle but important distinction. How can you write about your advocacy topics in a way that is fresh, persuasive, interesting? Where should your writing appear to influence the people you want to influence?

How can advocacy writers make a living with their craft?

Think as you write about how you can parlay your writing platform into paid speaking opportunities and articles. It took me years to realize that you have to think about the marketing of a book with the same intensity as you think about its content. They are inseparable.

Also, know that most advocacy organizations and political leaders are desperate for great writers to help them with speeches, op-eds, books, and media messages.

INTERVIEW BONUS – For those of you who are members of the She Writes community, you will want to check out the “Countdown to Publication” blog series Gloria wrote before the initial publication of “No Excuses” in 2010. It’s a great look at what she went through to prepare the book for publication!

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Write This Way: Top Writing and Editing Links for February 7, 2011


Image courtesy of SXC.

A manifesto for the simple scribe – my 25 commandments for journalists | Guardian.co.uk
Former Guardian science editor Tim Radford provides 25 ironclad commandments for writing better. And, actually, they are good enough you SHOULD follow them!

Killer tips for acing your journalism job interview | 10,000 Words
Mark Luckie discusses some modern-day basics for doing well when interviewing for a media job. My favorite tips: 1) Have an online portfolio, and don’t forget to list it at the top of your resume, and 2) Have a Twitter account (shows you have at least a passing acquaintance with social media).

HOW TO: Beat Writer’s Block Online
Amy-Mae Elliot, writing on Mashable.com, offers several ways to use online tools to break through a writing impasse.

How journalists can get ahead of the game in 2011 « Adam Westbrook
Westbrook, an innovative UK journalist, discusses a report from JWT Intelligence on trends to watch in 2011, and picks out 12 particularly relevant to journalists — everything from Africa’s middle class to mobile blogging and next-generation documentary making.

Cracking Open TED Books: Brilliant Ideas in Single Serving Size | Fast Company
TED is taking its “Ideas Worth Spreading” video presentations a step further with TED Books, an imprint of short nonfiction e-books available for the Kindle and Kindle Reader through Amazon’s new line of Kindle Singles books.

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Telling the story of your career: An interview with Kathy Hansen, Ph.D.

Katharine (Kathy) Hansen, Ph.D.

Katharine (Kathy) Hansen, Ph.D.

Most non-fiction writers and editors have some confidence in their ability to weave a good story out of the raw material of real life. It turns out that this skill has a very practical application outside of writing articles or producing videos, podcasts and other media—it can help you secure a great job!

Today I’m interviewing Katharine (Kathy) Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers. She is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits its newsletter QuintZine, and blogs about storytelling at A Storied Career. Her most recent book, “Tell Me About Yourself: Storytelling to Get Jobs and Propel Your Career,” was published by JIST Works in April.

Hansen, who earned her doctorate from Union Institute & University, has also authored a number of other books on career-related topics, including “Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates,” “A Foot in the Door,” and “Top Notch Executive Resumes.”

How did you come to write this book?

Early on my Ph.D. program, I took an organizational behavior class that emphasized postmodernism. While researching postmodernism, I came across the discipline of organizational storytelling, which I had never hard of but instantly resonated with me because I’ve always loved stories. I immediately knew that storytelling should be the centerpiece of my dissertation research.

My Ph.D. program encouraged dissertation projects that were outside the norm — such as artistic endeavors and book manuscripts. I decided to write a book about storytelling in the job search. Since the book was directed at a mass audience, I was also required to write a “contextual essay,” the scholarly research version of the book.

Between the beginning and end of my doctoral program, a number of forces combined to make my school’s requirements more rigorous, and I was encouraged to turn the contextual essay into a full-blown dissertation. So, I ended up writing both the book manuscript and the dissertation for my program. I felt really fortunate that the book was published.

Why are stories such powerful tools in career marketing? What can stories do that traditional approaches cannot?

  • Stories establish your identity and reveal your personality; they satisfy the basic human need to be known.
  • Stories help you know yourself and build confidence.
  • Stories make you memorable.
  • Stories establish trust.
  • Stories establish an emotional connection between storyteller and listener and inspire the listener’s investment in the storyteller’s success.
  • Stories help you stand out.
  • Stories illustrate skills, accomplishments, values, characteristics, qualifications, expertise, strengths, and more. Stories paint vivid pictures.
  • Stories explain key life/career decisions, choices, and changes.
  • Stories told well help you portray yourself as a strong communicator.

TellMeCoverCorrect

Based on your professional experience, are people in general aware of how to tell stories about themselves? Why or why not?

Definitely not! Based on my observations, most people are both uncomfortable telling stories about themselves and flummoxed about how to do it.

I think the discomfort element is because most job-search stories necessarily focus on accomplishments, and people are wary about talking about their accomplishments because it feels like boasting. They probably also have not thought enough about their accomplishments or catalogued them as they moved from job to job. Asking them to tell stories about their accomplishments is like asking a non-writer to write an article. That’s what my book is for — to help non-storytellers learn to tell their stories in the job search.

Most people are both uncomfortable telling stories about themselves and flummoxed about how to do it … Asking them to tell stories about their accomplishments is like asking a non-writer to write an article.

How do stories told in the career search differ from stories that nonfiction writers might compose in their day-to-day writing for publication?

They are not so very different. Stories in the career search by necessity are shorter, of course, than articles non-fiction writers produce. I also advise particular structures for job-search stories, such as situation (or problem or challenge), action, result, etc.

Do you think the pre-formulated story frames (SMART, STAR, etc.) given by career experts to structure interview questions are useful? Are there instances in which they get in the way?

I do think they are useful; however, I’m trying to expand the concept of the storytelling structure for the job search. If I do another edition of the book, I will likely present more expansive ideas on story structures. For example, at a storytelling conference I attended earlier this year, a presenter suggested that the situation-action-result formula is boring and that a better approach is to describe what was at stake.

What skills do career seekers need to learn to tell compelling stories as they look for work?

First, they need the ability to identify their skills and accomplishments and to discern which of these are most relevant to a given job. Then they need to compose or construct their stories effectively. And finally, they need to be able to tell stories well in an interview. These are all skills that anyone can develop with practice.

How can people “tell stories” on their resumes and cover letters? How can they provide a well-told tale without taking up excessive amounts of room?

The resume is the trickiest component in career-marketing communication in which to tell stories because the clipped, bulleted format we’ve come to expect of resumes doesn’t lend itself well to storytelling. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when creating a story-based resume:

  • A commonly used section at the top of the resume, a Qualifications Summary or Professional Profile, provides an excellent vehicle for telling the story of who you are professionally. Imagine that this section begins with the phrase, “I am a(n)…” and let your bullet points tell a story of who you are and how you qualify for this job.
  • Tell stories of accomplishments, not duties and responsibilities. Susan Britton Whitcomb, author of “Resume Magic,” one of the most highly recommended resume books on the market, calls accomplishments “the linchpin of a great resume.” Accomplishments are best communicated in story form. Think about what would have been different in each situation without your actions? What would not have happened if you hadn’t been there? How did you leave each organization better than you found it?
  • Accomplishment stories are among the easiest and most satisfying to craft. Career experts advise job-seekers to use any one of several similar “formulas,” especially in job interviews. But you can easily use these formulas in resumes. The formulas are generally three steps long, and the last two steps are Action and Result. In a resume, however, tell these story in reverse order – results, action, problem/situation/challenge. Why? Because, the employer spends only 2.5 to 20 seconds looking at your resume. Example: “[Result:] More than doubled Customer Satisfaction Index (CSI) scores from 40 percent to 88 percent in four months [Action:] by initiating phone campaign [Situation:] to proactively resolve issues.”
  • Humanize and personalize your resume. The trend in resumes has been to eschew personal information and interests. But this type of human-interest information can work for you as long as you relate it to professional skills. It also helps to reveal more of your story to the employer and portrays you as someone he or she would like to get to know better.
  • Remember that you don’t have to tell the same stories on every resume you send out.

Cover letters offer the job-seeker significant latitude to tell stories because letters are quite compatible with the narrative form. You can engage the employer, make an emotional connection, show results, and become instantly memorable by writing at least one paragraph in the form of a powerful story. Here are some guidelines:

  • Make it as concise. Employers are spending less time than they used to reading cover letters. Ideally, your letter should be about four paragraphs, and one of those should tell a story.
  • Tell only the stories that are relevant to the employer’s requirements, the problems you can solve, and the results you can achieve. If the relevance isn’t immediately obvious from your story, help the reader make the connection by pointing out the skills and qualifications the story illustrates.
  • Work some of the employer’s own messages and language into your story. Pick out buzzwords and phrases from the employer’s Web site or print publications about the organization. Play these back to the employer in your story.
  • Don’t neglect the “storyline” in the rest of the letter. Even if only one paragraph in your letter is in story form, try to integrate the story’s theme throughout your letter and tie the letter together by briefly referring back to the story in your final paragraph. Here are three examples of story-based cover letters:

Example 1 | Example 2 | Example 3

  • Make your stories specific and quantify results whenever possible. The reader can more easily picture you succeeding on the job when you describe a specific situation.
  • Avoid lengthy stories with too much detail.
  • Don’t overlook the story-fueling potential of job postings and want ads. The principle here is similar to the language-mirroring described above. In his book, “Don’t Send a Resume,” Jeffrey Fox calls the best letters written in response to want ads “boomerang letters” because they “fly the want ad words – the copy – back to the writer of the ad.”

While I don’t necessarily think of myself as a great storyteller, I do find myself mentally editing when I hear others telling a story — thinking to myself about how the story could be better. I mentally edit myself, too. I choose words carefully and tend not to speak until I’ve edited what I plan to say.

Do you think editing is an important skill for would-be career storytellers? Why?

This is a fantastic question and one I have not been asked before. Not surprising that it would be asked by an editor!

I just wrote on my blog recently that, while I don’t necessarily think of myself as a great storyteller, I do find myself mentally editing when I hear others telling a story — thinking to myself about how the story could be better. I mentally edit myself, too. I choose words carefully and tend not to speak until I’ve edited what I plan to say.

That’s a good cautionary note for telling stories in job-interviews: Before responding to a question, take just a quick moment to gather your thoughts before blurting something out. Editing also comes in with resumes and cover letter because you obviously must tell your stories in a small amount of space, so you must continually hone and refine your stories until they are not only the right length but also convey exactly the right message.

What advantages might professional writers and editors have when using the story-based approach in the career hunt?

In theory, they should have an advantage because they know how to compose stories and how to edit themselves and choose the right words.

But, again, in using myself as an example, I’m a writer who has done a lot of writing — 8 books — yet I don’t consider myself a stellar storyteller. I would be interested in learning the thoughts of you and your readers. As writers and editors, how does this approach feel to you? Do you feel it should be easy for you — or is it somehow more difficult?

Is there anything else we haven’t covered you think is relevant?

On my blog, A Storied Career. I talk about applied uses of storytelling that are a lot broader than just the job search, but I do write regularly about storytelling for career advancement and the job hunt.

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