They say you never forget your first love and for me, that’s totally true …
… I remember the exact moment I first tasted pesto.
It was 23 years ago, in the summer of ’92.
Nothing in my life has been the same since.
It began when my wife Linda and I were eating dinner at an Italian restaurant in Lexington, Massachusetts with our friends Val and Mike.
I don’t know why, but instead of my usual veal marsala or chicken parm, I opted for the tortellini with pesto. I really have no idea what caused me to take this dietary detour, but whatever it was, I did.
Wow … it was amazing. Smooth, but textured. Mild, but savory. Green, but not in the least bit disgusting.
And while I’m confident the pasta beneath played some small, supporting role in my meal, I’m pretty sure that had they poured that sauce over a pile of hamsters, I would not have noticed the difference.
I’m happy to further report that my love affair with pesto has only grown stronger these past many years.
I have it on chicken; I have it on fish; I spread it on sandwiches.
Sometimes, when the house is quiet and my family has gone up to bed, I open the fridge door and just look at it (sorry, too creepy?).
The point is, in my book, pesto makes just about anything better.
Now let’s talk about your writing. If it’s anything like most of the “business” writing out there, it’s decidedly un-pesto-fied.
It’s dry. It’s flavorless. It’s, and I mean no offense, just plain boring.
Not because your ideas are no good or your logic is flawed. You’ve got plenty of good insights and valuable information.
It’s because when you sit down to write your newsletter, your web site, your bio, your blog, your whitepapers, or whatever else, you insist on being “professional.”
Add to that the mythology that “nobody reads anything anymore unless it’s super-short” and you end up with plain, bland, same-as-everybody-else, tortellini. I mean content.
The pesto – your voice, your stories, your personality, your point of view – is all gone.
And that’s a problem, because your pesto is the best-o.
It’s not the only part that matters (even I don’t eat pesto straight out of the jar).
But it’s the part that makes what you say enjoyable, interesting, memorable and worth talking about.
Don’t believe me? Consider today’s article. It makes just one point: Add some personality to your writing.
I could have told you that at the very beginning and saved us both a lot of time.
Why then, are you still reading?
It’s because, I humbly submit, you’re a human being and you like stories. And humor. And zesty bits of wordplay, like, I don’t know, “zesty bits of wordplay.”
Here’s the bottom line. Information is everywhere; it’s no longer what any of us craves.
What we want instead is somebody who can simplify the complex, add some useful context and, maybe most of all, make the whole damn thing more interesting than the fifty other dull-as-dust emails hibernating in my inbox.
The way I look at it, if you put enough pesto on it, people will read just about anything.
- Do you like pesto?
- At first I wrote “cotton balls,” but I decided “hamsters” was funnier. Discuss.
- Why do you think people are so afraid to be authentic in their business communications?
Share your comments below!
If you liked this article you’ll love the next one. Click here to sign up for future posts and get a free copy of my report, “11 Business(ish) Books I Recommend to All Professional Service Providers.”
2) Hamsters are actually better with a nice wine reduction
3) Not everybody has the flair that you do. So, authentic – yes; witty pesto on hamsters – not so much
The funny thing about #3 is that most people are quite at home being personal and as witty as they are capable of in conversation – even in business situations – but it often goes out the window when they start writing.
P.S. Please send your hamster recipe….
I have never even tried pesto. Isn’t it green?
Love this post. It’s excellent and full of personality and the point is well made.
Thank you Michael.
PS: I may try pesto next week.
Yes, quite incredibly green. Definitely worth a try!
1) I’ve never tried it and I have NO IDEA why not… I love pine nuts and am definitely not afraid of green…
2) Because my first pet was a hamster (that I named Templeton because my favorite book at the time was Charlotte’s Web), I’m going to have to vote for “cotton balls” which is still funnier than “cardboard” which is what most people would have written.
3) You hit the nail on the head with your observation that people want their writing to look “professional”; and I agree that boring doesn’t have to go hand in hand with “professional”.
I may have to have a Pesto Party and invite all the Pesto Virgins. I also couldn’t believe I never tasted it until well into adulthood!
1. With a last name like Cacciatore, I better!
2. “Hamsters” makes me sad. And you can no longer say “no animals were harmed in the writing of this enewsletter” now that you’ve used hamsters. And just what, exactly, did little fuzzy hamsters do to you that you’d make them into an entree? Attack you in your sleep as a child? Stage a coup and take over the treehouse? Make a party boat out of your house slippers?
3. I do like to write like you suggest, but bosses aren’t overly adventurous and take all the fun out of it. They expect us to be boring…um, I mean “professional” when putting out content to our audiences.
1. Excellent point.
2. Hamsters is a funny word. I don’t know why; just kind of fun to say!
3. I agree, that’s often the case. Although I’m happy to say that I work and have worked with plenty of business owners and people within what are otherwise dull companies who get the value of this authentic communication stuff and are eager to try some new things. Hopefully, one of the benefits of social media, is a higher tolerance for and appreciation of the value of informality in business.
What’s interesting too is that few people/companies that publish boring junk defend it as being anything but boring junk. They know it stinks. But being adventurous is scary!
1. I love pesto. I make it fresh at home and also buy jars at the store so that I always have some available. I have also experimented with different recipes, and haven’t found one I don’t like yet. Don’t ask me for the recipes, though. Once I’ve tried one that I like, it goes into a recipe limbo never to be found again.
2. I think that “cotton balls” is better than “hamsters”. All I could think of was live hamsters dressed in vests with their hands up in the air, being smothered in pesto. I have no idea why, but I did not consider that you could cook hamsters like chicken. Also don’t know why the vests. But eating live, dressed-up hamsters seemed unthinkable, so cotton balls were more appealing.
3. I believe that the fear of being authentic in business writing comes from believing that doing so will come off as unprofessional. I actually used to be much less authentic even in person because of that and it was not until a few years ago that I started to change it. I still struggle with my writing, though, and sometimes resort to smiley faces to “fix it”, which is a solution I loathe, but use anyway for lack of a better alternative. I think that in my head I sound much more friendly than I do when someone else reads my writing.
1. Our kids have always gotten to choose what we have for dinner on their birthdays and chicken with tortellini and pesto is often the favorite (must be my influence)!
2. I think even with pesto involved, I would hesitate to eat any fashionably dressed rodent.
3. It’s definitely a gradual process, but I’m quite encouraged by the direction business is headed. Advertisements are almost universally funny these days, regardless of industry, so hopefully the rest will follow!
1) Yes, though perhaps not as much as you. Do you make it yourself in the summer when backyard basil is lush and beautiful? This is one of the main reasons to own a food processor in my opinion.
2) “hamsters” is funnier just because. Though vegans may disagree.
3) I think people worry they won’t seem professional. All I know is that pesto-fying my newsletters as I learned from the master (that would be you) seems to be working. I got an email from my compliance attorney saying how much she likes my newsletters. My compliance attorney! If there was ever a person who deals in dry and dusty, it’s her, and yet she’s drawn to the pesto. That was very gratifying.
1. I think we tried once to make it ourselves. LOTS of work and the fresh stuff in the market is still pretty good.
3. That’s a great story. Maybe it’s exactly because she’s steeped in that compliance stuff that your writing is a breath of fresh air to her.
I have a similar story. The first office I rented, the landlord was the most humorless guy you could imagine. Never smiled, unfriendly, all that. But he had signs custom-made for each office door in the building with each person’s name on them. Mine was the only office where he had my job title on the sign too (Chief Penguin). He used to call me that too when he saw me.
1. Love it!
2. Hamsters are cute. Cottonballs, not so much.
3. One consideration I’m going to have to make as I launch my business is cultural differences. U.S. Americans are relatively informal and chummy. This drives Europeans (in particular) crazy–some of them find it offensive. Anyone out there have experience with using this kind of personal-story humor with non-U.S. readers?
Great question and I don’t know the answer. Readers? Who can chime in here for Suzanne?
1. Yes. But not as much as aioli.
2. There’s just something about hamsters…
3. Might have a lot to do with a case of the “shoulds”: I should be glossy and shiny. I should have my smarty pants on.
P.S. Thanks for the encouragement to do something different. Like pour pesto over hamsters.
Ooo, have never heard of aioli. I will have to investigate (shh… don’t tell the pesto).
P.S. You’re welcome.
What? Mom didn’t put aioli on your gefilte fish? What type of Italian are you? Or you don’t do crossword puzzles? (constructors love a 5 letter word with 4 vowels)
I grew up on a mostly can-based diet. Lots of Campbell Soup and canned vegetables. We even had – I am not making this up – corn on the cob that came out of a can.
Michael, I will join the chorus of readers who feel this was an inspired post.
Regarding why people are afraid to be authentic in their business communications: I think it’s a combination of fear of how they will be perceived (unprofessional, not serious, less than entertaining) and uncertainty about what sort of tone *other than* dry and just-the-facts will resonate with unseen readers. The irony of the latter part is that readers respond well to a wide range of tones and styles, as long as they sense that the writer is an authentic human.
As for pesto over hamsters: my son’s two hamsters, Jimi and Mitch, are not amused.
That’s a great point that people are unsure what tone to use and when you combine that with a fear of not being taken seriously, we all play it safe. Ironically, of course, the best tone is whatever one’s real tone is since, as you point out, different people respond differently.
To me, the “killer app” (is that term still in use?) of good content, is authenticity.
I drink pesto. I have pesto flavoured toothpaste. If pesto were clothes I’d wear them — all the time.
Maybe rocks would be better than hamsters or cotton balls since you can eat both but rocks are a tougher proposition. Also pesto on hamsters was kind of visually off-putting. Are they live hamsters? Have they been filleted? Is their fur still on? You get the picture. But pesto would make even the toughest rock palatable. Hyperbole at work!
One word – Sheeple. Four words – Monkey see, monkey do. Opportunity missed. And that short copy/long copy thing, you’re right-on there. The longer they read the more likely they are to buy.
I agree on all counts (a pesto suit would be something to own, indeed).
And I love the term “sheeple.” The good news, I guess, is that we can all get better and you don’t have to go crazy all at once. Just slowing moving in the right direction!
I don’t have an answer to your cross-border question, just an anecdote. My best friend works at the Boston outpost of a French-based company. She says every time she writes an email she pauses first to determine if the recipient is stateside or in France. The latter requires a higher level of formality. She also feels the need to step up her wardrobe choices for any in-person meetings that include French co-workers.
FWIW– maybe that’s just the way it is??
Yeah that pretty much matches my experience. I think the power of stories is universal, and I think a bit of self-disclosure can help build trust, but if it’s too much people get uncomfortable or find it–yes–unprofessional. How much is too much I think is culture specific. At the same time, Michael’s newsletters really DO keep my attention, because I enjoy them, and I do feel he’s being real. Trick is how to do that without crossing boundaries of appropriateness for my audience. Hmmm…
2- When you wrote “hamsters”, I really thought about. It’s funny but nothing I’d ever think of. Cotton balls are inanimate objects while hamsters are alive and squirmy. So that makes for a more active visual image. It brings forth a more visceral response? Who knows. Thanks for your funny non-boring writing.
Yes, squirmy is good.
And squirmy is another great nonbusiness word. Reminds me that I once had a large client for whom I wrote a monthly newsletter. Each month, the only words they changed from my draft were the normal, nonbusiness words we use every day: squirmy, hysterical, zesty, etc. We finally reached some equilibrium, but I never quite convinced them that the content they developed (this was a newsletter whose target reader was stay at home moms) should sound like the people they were writing to.
1. I love pesto.
2. I think hamsters was the right choice.
3. It takes more effort, but it just takes some practice. I usually do not take myself very seriously, taht is why I try to remeber jokes that I do not know, because are the only ones that make me laugh.
I’m with you on the jokes. The ultimate in risk-taking since they don’t always work!
Just reading the words “cotton balls” makes my teeth hurt. Like fingernails on a chalkboard.
I don’t quite follow. Were you attacked by cotton balls as a child?
Have you ever put cotton balls in your mouth and bit down? In my defense, I was a kid and I thought it was cotton candy.
Ah, I see what you mean. Bleah.
1. Pesto? Nope. Allergic to pine nuts. You can make it with walnuts … but 3 cups of basil? Too much basil for me. Picky. Yep. I admit it. But I love Italian food. Italians, too.
2. Think I could do hamsters. Just not guinea pigs. Had one as a pet.
3. Hmm. Fear of authenticity in business communications … that could be a Freudian question. Like a fear of being a nonconformist. Or “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” so I’ll keep to the formula. Let’s face it Michael – writers like you are few and far between, and if they’re out there, most of them are in hiding.
I always look for your missives to appear in my inbox and enjoy – and learn from – all you write.
I guess there isn’t much interest in rodent cuisine in general. Probably a good thing!
having just reworked my bio and about page for the umpteenth time, I went totally casual….upon my reread this morning….I am thinking it has potential….better than going all professional….but still needs work….what if you just aren’t all that humorous….pesto, hamsters or cottonballs would never have crossed my mind to get a point across….did you know hamsters are now being used for micro loans in south America to help women create sustainable businesses and improve nutrition for poor areas…maybe you could send some pesto and they can have a whole new side biz to go along with it!
I admit that humor is helpful from a pure entertainment perspective, but I don’t think that’s really at the heart of it. It’s more about being authentic.
For example, we all have that client or two who absolutely loves us and the work we do. And when we get together with them, it’s fun and natural and easy and we feel relaxed and confident. To me, the million dollar question then is, “How do you behave when you’re with that client?” Now read the bio you just wrote. Is it the same person talking?
If you can tap into that – and I admit it’s easier said than done – now your stuff sounds human instead of canned.
Let us know how you make out! (Cool about the micro loans too.)
Michael, in the summer: Pan fry swordfish, then take it out to rest, cook some corn kernels sliced off fresh ears in the pan. Add handfuls of baby spinach and wilt it. Put the vegetables on the plate, top with fish, and, WAIT FOR IT, put some pesto on the fish.
Love it Bill! But summer? That’s a long way off (I just finished building my ice skating rink!).
Oh, I loved this one, Michael! I, too, like pesto, though definitely not as much as you do (and I really don’t believe you when you say you don’t eat it straight).
And isn’t it just the best feeling in the world when you write something funny (pesto on cotton balls) and tweak it to make it even funnier (pesto on hamsters)? You got a few audible chuckles out of me this week–nicely done 🙂
Audible chuckles are what I live for, Jen, thanks for commenting!
I remember the first time I had pesto. A boyfriend in college had a garden and raised the basil himself and then turned it into pesto. I’ve been hooked ever since.
I was subsisting on the stuff from the supermarket but then found someone at the local farmers market who makes it. Now I can eat FRESH pesto draped over pasta with my fish. Yum!!
People are afraid to be authentic in their business marketing often because it can be a little scary to “put yourself out there” in a different way. It’s similar to buying a new wardrobe. You look different so you feel uncomfortable.
But once you begin to express yourself in your own way, you never go back. For example, pasting a picture of yourself in a bright flowered dress on your website even though you work with industrial manufacturers . . . . 🙂
And quite the nice dress it is, pesto or not!
In our Italian household (can’t tell ’cause our name doesn’t give it away) we love making fresh Pesto with Pecans. We are in Texas and that’s just how you do it here. Yum! So many things made with Pecans. And Pesto has become a staple in the fridge. Great on turkey sandwiches, or just about anything to spice it up! Now a Pesto suit. That sounds interesting.
I guess people eat different things depending on what lives where they live like guinea pigs. It’s what you get used to the idea of… like rattlesnake. People are going to eat what’s available. I’ll bet they would all be good with Pesto. Not too fond of eating cotton balls though.
Michael, love your style of humor spicing up your writing. Love your writing samples for my mind to absorb. Taste morsels.
Never had rattlesnake, but I have had alligator, which seems somehow dangerously similar. And pecans, that sounds excellent too!
Love it. Being professional doesn’t have to mean boring.
Why I love Pesto
It is absolutely great on everything! The Italians got it right. Pesto makes every dish better no matter what. And – virgin olive oil is fantastic as well!
Combine the two and Voila ! What a sensation? Why I even put it on my Cornflakes in my morning breakfast!
Now – that my friend, is true love!!!
Need more creative recipes ? Just send your check for….
🙂 🙂 🙂
I think it is important to know why you write, even if you only whisper the answer to yourself and never share it with another human. There has got to be something driving you to your notebook, or laptop, day after day. And something that is causing that waterfall of guilt to pour down from the heavens when you don’t transform words into sentences, and ideas into stories. What is that drive? Where is the source? The answer is as unique as each of us.