In conversation: Ted Leonhardt & Richard Pelletier

Short story. A few short days ago, US Dark Angel Richard Pelletier and Ted Leonhardt, held an event at Folio. It’s a lovely private library, perfect to discuss some great topics. Dark Angels’ new book, Established: Lessons from the world’s oldest companies, writing, business, branding, and story. Ted was accompanied by his lovely new bride Robin, and Richard brought n’er do wells from his childhood who mostly behaved. Ted and Richard love talking to each other so much about stories they just kept talking.

Richard Pelletier & Ted Leonhardt

Richard:
Ted, we had a wonderful public conversation at Folio recently. One question that we didn’t explore was this. How do storytelling and language work on people? In terms of pure bottom-line calculations—how do stories and language make a difference? You’re a keen observer of the business world. What’s taking place when stories succeed?

Ted:
“Once upon a time there was a beautiful little girl who was very quick but she had a hard time staying focused on a single subject. Her parents loved her deeply but didn’t think they should pay to send her to a top school. So even though she was their first born when it became time for her to enter a university they…”

Well told stories make us feel something. They get our attention by creating a deep need that holds our attention. A need to satisfy the itch that the storyteller creates by giving us just enough that we’re compelled to continue the journey. The potency of story is in how it establishes a deep need within that compels  us to continue to follow the thread. Once caught by the storyteller, we must find out more.

I’ve always used stories to attract clients. The stories I tell are my only form of direct outreach. In the late nineties, I did a lot of public speaking. My talks were illustrated by stories about people: how they affected the world around them and how that world shaped them.

Bottom line: My storytelling helped my company, The Leonhardt Group, grow to $10 million in sales.

My interest has always been in how we connect and persuade. In the last few years, I’ve started writing my stories as well as telling them. And in the process, I’ve built an active following through social media and email that’s resulted in a small, but growing consulting practice.

When stories succeed, the reader or listener forms a bond of trust with the teller. This trust lives on a subconscious level; it removes some of the natural barriers that exist between strangers. Reader and writer become closer through the shared experience of the story. The shared story seems to remove some of the “fear of the other” that separate and divide one person from another.

Stories also sort people into those who identify with the story and the storyteller and those who do not. I like to say “I’m not right for everyone, but I’m just right for you.” Stories prequalify people into those who feel a fit with me and those who don’t.

Richard:
I like where you say that when stories work, they help remove natural barriers and fear of the other. These are terrific insights. I remember reading another piece of yours that touches on barriers and fear of the other.

I’m talking about your take on creatives – how they’re wired and how that puts them at a particular disadvantage as they prepare to work with or negotiate with tough-minded, and maybe tightfisted, clients. Can you talk about that? You’re onto something there.

Ted:
Here’s the core of it. Our self-worth, our self-esteem, is all tied up with the work we do, in a not-so-tidy bundle. This results in feelings of extreme vulnerability whenever our work becomes the center of a transaction. The vulnerability can produce stress – sometimes extreme stress. When we’re negotiating a fee for creative work or a salary for a creative position, these feelings can be so disturbing that we’ll roll over, give in or not ask for what we need, just to reduce the anxieties.

On the other hand, we love the work we do. We get great personal pleasure from doing it. In fact, we get so much pleasure from doing the work that we’ll give it away for the recognition – for the opportunity to do more creative work. This isn’t a productive state of mind when we’re negotiating either.

I’m a creative.

I’ve struggled with this my whole life, and I’ve discovered that I’m not alone. Now my work is dedicated to helping creatives get their fair share. And I’ve learned a thing or two about how to retain my vulnerability and still get the money and respect I need.

Through my own experience and through helping hundreds of creatives use their intuition effectively at the bargaining table, I’ve come to believe that understanding what seem to be our top three vulnerabilities is our greatest strength:

1. It’s never good enough. We always think our work could be a little bit better if we could spend just a few more minutes, hours, days or years on it. Wishing it could be better undermines our ability to ask for top dollar.

2. We’re not motivated by money. We’re motivated by the work and the opportunity to do more work. Not a great mindset when fees are the issue.

3. We’re more empathetic than others*. It’s the empathy we pour into our work that makes it appealing to others. It’s the emotional impact our work has on others that our clients want from us. But our empathy makes us feel our own fears and anxieties more acutely. So when we’re negotiating fees with an MBA or a purchasing agent or some other accomplished linear thinker, we’re at a severe disadvantage and we tend to give in.

Our work helps people change their minds, discover new ideas, buy things and take action. We creatives break down barriers and chart new courses.

Our contribution is worth money. But when clients bargain with us, we allow them to take advantage of our willingness – eagerness, even – to get on with doing the work and past the uncomfortable feelings of negotiating the deal. Once this dynamic is understood, we can maintain our essential vulnerability and still get what we need to succeed for our clients and ourselves.

*In their book, Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, co-writers Scott Barry Kaufman, and Carolyn Gregoire, cite the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology, along with engaging examples that link creative traits and empathy.

Ted:
Here’s a question for you, Richard. You’ve worked with corporate communicators from all over the world. You know how to tell stories that capture our interest, hold our attention and our hearts. And you’ve run into the difficulties of getting clients to tell it like it is.

You know that jargon and spin are the stink that turns off readers. What are the best ways to get senior executives to tell their stories with openness and honesty?

Richard:
So, I’m imagining a speaking gig. A group of senior execs. They’ve come to learn why they should think hard about telling stories. Here’s my opening shot:

Right now, there’s a small army of hungry, talented word wranglers circling your offices. They’re eager to dig deep, to summon everything they’ve got. Imagination and empathy; emotion and precision. Clarity. Research and data. PASSION. ENTHUSIASM. They want to light a fire in the heart of your audience. They want to tell stories. Only one problem. You. You won’t let them. Oh, you’ll invite them in. You’ll make nice, make them comfortable. You might even listen patiently over coffee. You will seduce them. “Hmm, that sounds interesting. I’m liking the sounds of this.” But in the end, you won’t do anything different. You will still bore the pants off all of us while you crush our souls to dust.

Unless I can persuade you of a few things.

First, that the world has changed. Marketing as you’ve known it has run its course. It’s dead. And second, the only chance you’ve got to survive and thrive—the only chance any of us have—is to tell the truth. To stop the boasting, the assertions, the leading provider of this, the unique, socially conscious global leader of that.

Stories are how humans transmit and reveal who we are, how we operate, and, what matters to us. Stories are how we connect. When you leave here today, you’re going to say, “there was my life before I heard all this, and there’s my life now.”

So everybody buckle up, because first we’re going to look at the science…and it will blow your mind, what I’m gonna tell you…

 

The Missing Link?

Dark Angels is the world’s only residential creative writing programme for business. It exists to help people consider the language they use in the world of work, master their approach to writing and create imaginative, engaging and, above all, stronger human connections.

Founded 12 years ago by John Simmons, Stuart Delves and Jamie Jauncey, Dark Angels has evolved into something quite magical for those who have experienced the courses. The company is now at a pivotal stage of growth and transition. With a new team of Associate Partners in place and an ambitious business plan primed and ready for action, the time is right to find a word-loving, talented bod to help make it happen.

This is a freelance role – devising fun and creative marketing ideas, content marketing and planning, social and digital media management, lead generation and general marketing support. All of this with the freedom to shape and extend the role over time. Take a look at the more detailed job description. If this sounds like the opportunity you’ve been waiting for, we want to hear from you.

Send your CV, portfolio of relevant experience and a cover letter explaining why you’d be a perfect fit to gillian@designwriter.com before 25th March 2018.


In More Detail

Sales & Marketing Role*

  • The kind of things you’d do:
  • Develop imaginative marketing campaigns.
    Build a content strategy that will communicate the benefits and
    experience of Dark Angels’ open and bespoke writing
    programmes.
  • Define and co-ordinate a content marketing calendar in line with
    Dark Angels’ brand message and tone of voice.
  • Manage and co-ordinate content for all media channels including
    website, newsletter and social platforms.
  • Develop a sales pipeline by creating wider awareness of open and
    corporate programmes through SEO friendly content across
    these channels.
  • Work within the team to spot and nurture direct leads
    specifically within the corporate learning space.
  • Create and manage a CRM database.
  • Provide ongoing adhoc sales and marketing support.
  • Measure and report on the marketing hits and misses.We reckon that you:
  • Have a real passion for writing in all its form and glory.
  • Have about 5+ years’ experience in marketing (ideally training)
    with at least some of that being digital and content related.
  • Get how digital content and lead generation works.
  • Aren’t intimidated by selling to large corporate organisations (in
    fact, you probably relish the challenge).
  • Can comfortably multi-task – managing different projects and
    deadlines at once.
  • Are goal-oriented, results-driven and love to exceed a monthly
    target.You’d be part of something special:
  • A collegiate, spirited and supportive company of people.
  • An amazing network of inspirational alumni (many of whom are
    now friends and colleagues).
  • A sincere desire to help others find their voice.

*This role is for 16 hours a month and can be done from pretty much
anywhere. From time to time, there will be a requirement to attend meetings in various UK locations.

In conversation: Doug Howatt & Richard Pelletier

This past October saw the first ever Dark Angels workshop held in America. The American Foundation Course, led by tutors John Simmons and Richard Pelletier, took place over the Columbus Day weekend near New Bedford, Mass, home (for a while) to Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass. Ricketson’s Point House (see below) was our home for the weekend. Below, Richard chats with Doug Howatt, a Californian who was first to sign up. He was joined by John Jordan, Jessie Rump, John Burwell, Claire Bodanis, and Kristen Strauss.

RICHARD:
Doug, you’ve been working professionally for a while. What was going on that made you seek out a workshop when you did? And why did you settle on Dark Angels?

Doug Howatt, Creative Director, Writing Hitachi Vantara – Dark Angel

DOUG:
I’ve always had a desire and some aptitude for writing, which I nurtured with my career in marketing until I landed a dedicated writing and editing role eight years ago. I did well but knew that professional structure would give me perspective to enhance my writing and explain or defend it more successfully. All I could find online were programs with clickbait promises that I could live the dream of freelance writing with a six-figure income and no boss. I was not impressed. Soon I stumbled on rave reviews on Twitter of the Dark Angels courses. I looked them up and was captured by the focus on business writing. Unfortunately, at the time the courses were all in Europe and, I was in California. I continued to see very positive reviews and checked back every so often until earlier this year I saw that an American Foundation course was available. I signed up right away.

RICHARD:
All hail Twitter! And your persistence! I’m wondering about expectations. You write for a large corporation. Can you explain your thinking around what you hoped to gain specifically and how that might fit into your work at Hitachi?

DOUG:
I suppose I wanted new perspectives on my writing. Certainly, my marketing career gives me good perceptions of what makes copy good and how it should fit in with the rest of good marketing. But I also know the dangers of relying solely on my own experience and my own conclusions. In the heartache of wrestling with my words, or defending them against well-intentioned “help,” I sometimes wanted more ways to think about my writing. Call them principles, guidelines and strategies to break through my own barriers and, to explain and defend my work. It’s not a matter of large versus small companies. It’s a matter of arranging the letters on the page the best way I can.

{ Ricketson’s Point House ~ photography by @jbj51merc }

Did Dark Angels fulfill these rather unspecific expectations? Remarkably so. Among many insights, I saw the value of my own personal engagement in the copy. I learned that there need not be a wall dividing business writing from literature and private writing – they all have a place in the broad spectrum. I learned that the buzzwords of “authenticity” and “transparency” have honest roots in the vulnerability and humanity we need in branded content. The course – actually, you, John Simmons and my fellow fledgling Dark Angels – gave me quite a boost for my writing at work and at home.

{ The house at Ricketson’s point ~  photo by @jbj51merc }

RICHARD:
This is great to hear — it’s what we hope for. I’ve had similar reactions, having been on both sides. I love “it’s a matter of arranging the letters on the page the best way I can.” I mentioned large corporations because it’s my sense (perhaps this is unfair) that it’s a steep challenge to persuade the C suite to embrace what we advocate in Dark Angels workshops. I wonder what your experience has been on this score. Have you been able to bring some Dark Angels magic into the projects you’re working on? And can you tell me about that in a haiku?

DOUG:
Haiku? Ever the Dark Angel instructor, aren’t you! Here you go:

Early, filled with hope.
Green light to write colleague tales.
Steps turn into strides.

You’re right that things are harder – though perhaps “slower” is the right idea – in a large company. There are more people to convince and train, and more things to write and rewrite. But the initial reaction from my managers has been enthusiastic. The Dark Angels magic has helped me frame a big new program of stories about our people, though nothing has seen the light of day just yet. I also recognize that I’ll never influence all the content that 10,000 employees produce, but I think I have a good shot at the important brand content.

Is that how you see the Dark Angels influence spread among your clients?

{ Listen: six Dark Angels, six haikus. }

RICHARD:
It varies, but we’ve consistently heard from people who been through the experience, that it was a big deal for them, even life-changing. We’re now doing more in-house corporate workshops and those seem to provide as much inspiration as the residential version. So if you had to say, and I’m asking you now to look back on our time in October, what were three highlights from that weekend that you can put into a 62-word sestude?

DOUG:
1. I was astonished to learn that our guest speaker, author and brand expert Larry Vincent, uses unlikely literary forms such as the Malayan pantoum to discover and develop messages for his clients. He asks writers to work a brand’s top messages into the complicated repeating form and frequently finds fresh ways to express the brand’s ideas. This really is applying literature to business.

2. I discovered the power of my own words when I read them aloud to the group and more than once found myself choking up, with tears flowing. It shows the safe environment you and John Simmons created that weekend and the strength of the writing exercises you gave us. Of course, we laughed a lot, too. Quite a lot, in fact.

3. The biggest highlight for me was a rediscovered passion for writing. Yes, I learned tools and perspectives that I can apply back at work. But seeing other writers – masters and word wrights – playing with words and ideas, discussing literature and how words work made quite an impression on me. It changed writing from an intellectual challenge back to an emotional joy.

Richard:
Thanks, Doug. This was brilliant and fun. We’re running the American Foundation Course again next fall, so tell your friends. 🙂

{ Interior of Ricketson’s Point House ~ photo by @jbj51merc }

In conversation: Craig Watson & Stuart Delves

Co-founder Stuart Delves gets Craig Watson to deliver the big reveal. How a piece of well-crafted business writing led him to Dark Angels and a set of experiences (‘the people, the places, the playing with words’) that have become one of his life’s highlights.

STUART:
So, Craig. You’re probably a first in having completed all three levels of Dark Angels courses in the space of a year. That’s quite remarkable in itself. But what’s also rather fascinating is that you’re a lawyer working within one of the big banks. Not the stereotypical lawyer I have to say (whoever that might be!) but nonetheless a corporate bod, 9-5. Obviously writing
is a part of your job. But what drew you to Dark Angels?

CRAIG:
As some deep thinker, like Yoda or Mister Miyagi, once said: “When the student is ready, the master will appear.” And I can’t help but feel that Dark Angels sought me out. Or hunted me down? When the call came, it was through the medium of life insurance.

My corporate gig often involves reviewing customer communications from a legal perspective. On this occasion, I was looking at a bunch of letters designed to check customers had bought what they thought they’d bought. I’ve looked at hundreds of bits of customer-facing literature over the years, dozens of them relating to life insurance, but these were different: they’d been drafted by a Dark Angel.

They contained all the usual ‘legal’ mistakes, of course. But they were crisp, clear and – above all – human. They were so nicely put together that I felt bad about having to change anything. It would be like dismantling the Forth Bridge of life insurance letters. Now, Stuart, you’ve been my tutor on all three courses, so you know I like a challenge. This didn’t call for brutal edits. This didn’t even call for sensitive tweaks. No, this called for kintsugi; mending the prose with my legal-writerly gold.

I got to the meeting early and was surprised when over a dozen folk arrived: Compliance, Risk, several species of Marketing bod, and the writer – an agency guy up from London. It was me to go first. I respectfully set out my concerns and offered my carefully-crafted suggestions designed to cause minimal disruption to the text. Then everyone else piled in, ripped apart the letters and sent the poor chap off to write the inevitable compromise that keeps the client happy but lacks the flair of the original (an experience you’ll be all too familiar with!).

I was impressed, though. Impressed enough to visit the agency’s website and read the guy’s CV. I discovered he’d recently completed the Dark Angels Masterclass and I was intrigued. Over the next two years, I loitered heavily on your website, read John Simmons’s books, stalked Jamie Jauncey at the Edinburgh Book Festival and met you for the first time in the front room at Highgreen, fired up for the Foundation Course.

I’ve always seen it as part of my job to reconcile legal accuracy with the need for straightforward, engaging copy. But there was something in the Dark Angels philosophy that resonated with me. The idea of bringing your(full)self to every writing task. Of embracing the creativity in constraints. A colleague once suggested I was a frustrated marketer. I wasn’t really, I was a frustrated writer. Then, as you say, within the space of the next year, I’d completed the transition from pasty mortal to Dark Angel. Now I am a writer. And I’m a heck of a lot less frustrated.

STUART:
Thanks for your fulsome answer Craig. I love ‘legal-writerly gold’.
In my mind’s eye I see a pen with a sharp nib. What were some of the highlights of your Dark Angels journey? Maybe one highlight per level, 75 words on each? “Thank God for some more constraints,” I can hear you say.

CRAIG:
I’ll see your 75 words and raise you 17 syllables.

Highgreen (Foundation):

a little word trip / from random point advances / to where I started

Aracena (Advanced)

by a sunny pool / I find that I am happy / to write my sorrow

Merton (Masterclass)

rewriting copy / Middle English rhyme royal / invincible now

It’s difficult to edit highlights from 12 days that I can still replay in my head like a film (by Woody Allen, according to Samm Short). The whole experience has been something of a life highlight. The people. The places. The playing with words.

Each of the examples I gave relates to an individual writing exercise, set on or before the course. We all know it’s important to exercise our writing muscles. And Dark Angels is like a boot camp but with booze.

The middle example stands out, though. I’ve never had trouble making myself laugh but, when you find yourself writing through tears – and embracing it – you know you’re getting somewhere. Our job as writers is to connect with others, and that’s much easier when we’re ready to connect with ourselves.

Anyway, that’s where my Dark Angels journey took me, and I’ve since had cause to revisit.

STUART:
Thanks Craig. Not only from the above but from correspondence following the courses I know that your personal writing has benefitted but what has been the effect on your writing at work?

CRAIG:
I’ve been trying to do a lot of what Dark Angels does for a while. But, even after the Foundation course, I felt much more confident about pushing things further at work. How concise can we make this? How clear could it be? How much crap can we actually cut?

And I’ve seen tangible results. When I rewrote the customer letters for a project recently, call volumes dropped by almost half for the group most likely to ring up.

The original letters weren’t ‘wrong’. They just erred on the side of not leaving stuff out. If there’s a sniff of law or regulation involved, that’s common.

We think it’s safer to include things. It’s certainly easier. What stops us writing well is fear.

Anyone who’s ever reviewed or received overlong communications knows:

“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” (Yoda)

And we writers should always remember:

“It’s OK lose to opponent. Must not lose to fear.” (Miyagi)

There’s wisdom, if ever there was!

In conversation: John Simmons & Rowena Roberts

Rowena Roberts and cofounder John Simmons talk language and connection, books, storytelling, and what it means to call yourself a writer.

JOHN
It was great to see you again at the Masterclass in Oxford – you’ve now done the full set. Your final evening piece reminded us that your Dark Angels journey began with a book. You came across my book We, Me, Them & It first and that led you to Dark Angels at Highgreen. It’s actually a well-trodden path. What did the book mean to you at the time you first read it?

ROWENA
Quite frankly, utter relief!

Writer Rowena Roberts and her munchkins

My first copywriting job was based on the principle of “write what you’re told”, which gave me little creative freedom and even less personal (or professional, for that matter) satisfaction.

On the side, I wrote magazine articles and reviews on a freelance basis – and was starting to separate the two activities in my mind as “free” writing, where I could indulge my love of language and expression, and “corporate” writing, otherwise known as formal, safe, and lacklustre beyond belief.

The worst part was the knowledge that my copywriting wasn’t doing the job it was supposed to do. Sure, my standard of English and grammar and my volume of output (there’s that corporate speak again) kept my manager happy, but I just knew how bored and uninspired the readers would be – how quickly their attention would wander, and how my world-weary words would make their day just a little more dreary.

How truly refreshing it was, then, to discover your book! To be reminded that communication in all its forms is ultimately about connection – and that a little artistry, imagination and playfulness beats a lot of USPs and jaded clichés (“passionate”, anyone?).

JOHN
‘Only connect’ (EM Forster) has always been my favourite quotation. It works for me in so many ways: the need to network, to work with others, a plea for empathy, to achieve the real purpose of communication. All those ideas were behind We, Me, Them & It and then I discovered that Dark Angels courses were really able to connect at a deeper level through a shared belief in the potential of writing.

By that point I’d also written The Invisible Grail, based on a belief (from my own work) in the power of storytelling in business. So The Invisible Grail was written as a quest, one of the fundamental archetypes of storytelling. What also emerged was that books might have two purposes for writers who came on Dark Angels courses. First to introduce them to the principles, perhaps to whet their appetite, then to remind them and recapture some of the excitement after returning to work: to renew that faith daily that business writing can be invigorating, stimulating, transforming – for the writer and the reader.

Do you dip into the books after courses? Do they revive moments from, for example, Dark Angels in Spain?

ROWENA
I do – and they do.

Dark Angels was an obvious choice after our first course. What I liked most about it was that you were walking your talk – bringing so much of your personality and background into your writing of a book that advised readers to bring more of their personality into their writing at work. The book reminds us that even people who aren’t employed as writers still often write at work – emails, letters, presentations, etc – and a little creativity can go a long way towards making work a little less mundane and a little more enjoyable.

It struck me early on in our Spanish sojourn how difficult it seemed for a group of people who were mostly employed to write to call themselves ‘writers’. Perhaps because there’s no qualification or certificate awarded, we shy away from a label that implies a level of expertise we’re not sure we have the right to claim. Milton, he was a writer. Wilde, Plath, Hemmingway, Brontë (all of them), Tolkein, Capote, Angelou, that Shakespeare wasn’t bad either. Me? I ‘write for a living’.

But the books tell us that we all have an inner voice waiting to be heard, a storyteller eager to be released, a dark angel ready to spread its wings. I continue to find ideas and inspiration in the books, before and after the courses. The courses themselves introduce us to our own hidden depths; I think we all left Aracena as proud, if somewhat surprised, writers. It’s satisfying to discover that I can walk the talk myself.

JOHN
It’s true what you say about writers finding it hard to say ‘I am a writer’. We hope they go away from our courses more confident to say those words. Perhaps it is something to do with a perceived legitimacy that comes from a published book – there’s a link between ‘author’ and ‘authority’.

But of course you don’t have to write a book to see yourself as a writer. By the time people reach Masterclass level – as you now have – our hope is that essentials are in place. By that I don’t really mean ‘technical skills’ but a change in the way you think of yourself. The inner belief to say ‘I am a writer’. To have the confidence and the sheer love of the craft to want to be the best writer you can be, whatever kind of writing you do.

I hope that rings true for you.

ROWENA
I’m proud to say that it does.

And, who knows, perhaps accepting that title in our minds is the step we need to take before we can go on to write our own books. That’s certainly been the case for some fellow Dark Angels, who became published authors after taking their courses.

Will I join their ranks in the future? Let’s watch this space…

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