CSM EqualEd: Solutions Journalism in Action

As mission-driven communicators we’ve long been fans of solutions journalism – the arduous but invaluable practice of reporting on how widespread social problems get solved, rather than just the problems themselves.

Indeed, there’s something to be said for moving beyond “what’s wrong” and focusing on solutions, as the nonprofit (and past it Award winnerSolutions Journalism Network found in a 2014 Engaging News Project study:

“For many issues that receive ongoing news coverage, what’s most absent is not awareness about the problems but awareness about credible efforts to solve those problems. This omission causes many people to feel overwhelmed and to believe that their efforts to engage as citizens may be futile. Research indicates that when journalists regularly raise awareness about problems without showing people what can be done about them, news audiences are more likely to tune out and deny the message or even disengage from public life.”

(As a side note, this notion rings all too true today for those of us who are eagerly counting down the days until this vitriolic Presidential campaign ends.)

But fear not, news consumers and social-do-gooders! The solutions journalism movement is alive and well – as we can see through thoughtful recent coverage of solutions across the country: from reducing blight to diversifying the medical field to the thorny challenge of ending homelessness in the Bay Area.

And if the research holds true, this kind of reporting won’t just help shed light on best practices for advocates and policymakers; it may very well inspire an influx of civic engagement.  (That same 2014 study found that readers of solutions stories were more likely to start working toward a solution to the issue examined, or donate money to an organization working on the issue.)

This is why we’re especially excited about the newest entrant to the solutions journalism milieu: CSM EqualEd, a new reporting project by the Christian Science Monitor.

In a recent email message to prospective subscribers, the Monitor’s education staff writer Stacy Teicher Khadaroo called CSM EqualEd “a new initiative … focused on youth and equity issues. We’ll be emphasizing student voices and solutions.” The project rolled out its first newsletter this week, featuring in-depth articles on how superintendents are tackling poor-performing schools and battling chronic absenteeism. If you haven’t yet seen it, be sure to sign up for the newsletter, and follow along on Twitter. It’s a promising new venue for all of seeking to move the needle on yet another seemingly intractable societal problem – improving education outcomes for kids in need.

So welcome, CSM Equal Ed! We’re looking forward to the solutions you uncover, and your contributions to the important discipline of solutions journalism.

(If you’re interested in learning more about the solutions journalism movement, check out this helpful Solutions Journalism Network video.)

Save Yourself the Apology

If you’ve not seen the recent Wells Fargo ads, the chances are shrinking that you will. That’s because Wells Fargo has agreed to change the creative in the materials after criticism of the content of the messages. Two examples that have contributed to the uproar are from these pamphlet pieces intended to promote Teen Financial Day on September 17th:

“Ballerina yesterday. An engineer today.”

“An actor yesterday. A botanist today.”

Whether you’re a ballerina, actor, or neither, it’s not hard to see that Wells Fargo, a perhaps well-intended and well-documented supporter of arts, culture and education made a communications error. Wells Fargo actually concedes the ads fell short of their goal. In addition to stating that they will be changing the creative, they’ve also issued an apology. And all of this comes with at least one arts organization stating the criticism is “unfortunate and unwarranted.” Go figure.

I don’t actually believe it is part of the Wells Fargo brand to be against the arts or any other bedrock element of society. And it’s not worth debating the merits or severity of the criticism. What’s more interesting is asking the question, “How does that happen?” and considering what should have prevented it. To me, the key that would have saved Wells Fargo from itself was a well-developed, well-socialized, and well-utilized Content Strategy.

Given Wells Fargo’s size and resources, I don’t doubt they have a well-developed Content Strategy. Seeing what happened with these ads though does give me pause as to whether all of the communicators had access to it and used it effectively. While a Content Strategy should at least have the elements of message architecture/framework, editorial style guidance, content audits/channels, and an editorial calendar it’s the first two, in the right hands used the right way that would have helped Wells Fargo and could help your organization. Here’s how:

  • Message architecture/framework gives an organization and anyone who could communicate on its behalf, the insight into the highest order message principles, what the organization believes and does and how it backs that up through its actions. It’s not the public-facing messaging, but rather provides the direction and parameters to create it. It’s here that the first cracks in Wells Fargo’s content for Teen Financial Day appeared. They got away from their core supportive, progress message “Together We’ll Go Far” and slid into selective, judgmental messaging by implying that “You’ll Need to Change to This To Go Far”.
  • Editorial style guidance makes sure all communicators have command of the voice, tone, plain language best practices, and technical rules that guide any content creation and the review process for it. As organizations grow, more and more voices end up being needed to share and review the organization’s messages. That brings the challenge of consistency and the need for basic rules that everyone can follow to help accurately carry the message through to content. In this case, Wells Fargo’s voice cracked fully. It’s simply not in their core personality to presume they know better or best for anyone, but that’s what they did in the campaign’s content.

So while all parts of Content Strategy are key to good content reflective of one’s brand and mission, message architecture and editorial style done wrong can send your content adrift. You can help your organization avoid apologies similar to Wells Fargo’s by keeping their importance front of mind.

The Power of Two

Labor Day weekend is upon us. For many, that means one final summer trip to the beach before the ceremonial packing away of the bathing suits and white pants. For others, it means back to school next week, or that the holiday shopping season countdown has begun. (Please, no.)

For me, Labor Day weekend signals my wedding anniversary—12 years this Sunday—to the person who is my best friend and better half both in life and at C.Fox Communications.

This week’s unconventional (and perhaps for him at this moment, a bit uncomfortable) intersection is devoted to none other than my partner in all things, Brian Fox.

Many have asked us over the years how we work together and stay married, but I’ve never seen it as a challenge. Often, I just shrug off the question and answer with some variation of: “For us, it just works.”

But the reality is, it doesn’t “just work.” It works because we’re constantly working to make it work.

On our anniversary three years ago, Brian and I were asked to deliver an opening address at Loyola University’s Executive MBA program. We were asked to speak about the lessons that have informed our leadership styles. We rarely have the opportunity to present together, which made this experience at our alma mater a special one, and as we head into this Labor Day weekend, it felt worth pulling out of the archives.

Here are a few of the lessons we shared on that day three years ago:

Lesson 1: Remember What it Felt Like at the Start
Starting and running a company is not for the faint of heart, and doing it with your spouse while raising two young children takes on another dimension completely. But it’s worked for us because we’re not only on the same team, but because we remember what it was like on the ground floor. (Literally, on the ground floor of our Silver Spring townhouse, in a guest bedroom that became our first shared office space.) We’ve learned to work well in close quarters, and we’ve learned that even the best teams need some space every once in a while, too. But in every phase of building this company, we’ve never shied away from doing what needs to get done, even when that means washing the office’s kitchen towels. The lesson we’ve always remembered, from our very early professional experiences, is to seek out opportunities to learn what the job is like on every level: to see what it’s like to work with people of all different backgrounds and in all different situations, and to never to be afraid of new experiences or diverse teams. Hard work happens on the ground level, and it’s important not to forget what it feels like to just be starting out. If you can remember that, you’ll always be a leader that others can relate to, and that inspires that same spirit in those around you.

Lesson 2: Trust your Instincts
When we started building the business together in 2008, we had a shared sense for what we believed in, but our principles as business leaders have been refined based on our own experiences in recent years.  One of the most important lessons we’ve learned is that you must always trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right. For us, that’s meant turning down business when it didn’t fit our principles. That may have seemed like a strange thing to do during the 2008 recession, for instance, but it’s always been more important for us to like WHO we’re working for and the ISSUES we’re representing, than to take on an assignment that we don’t personally believe in. It’s made us stronger as a team, and stronger as business leaders.

Lesson #3: Strive for Balance, Aware that it Won’t Come Easy 
This one’s a given when you work with your spouse, but hang with me. When we hit about 5 employees, we realized just how much those employees were watching us. If we worked late, everyone worked late (and in the early days of our business, we had many more late nights than we do now). The lesson we work hard every day to remember is that this job—or any job for that matter—does not define us. As business owners, we work hard to force balance in our personal and professional lives. We work hard to share the load and to give one another breaks from the chaos. It’s in those moments that I believe we’ve become better leaders, and a better pair.

Regardless of what the future holds for us as business leaders, I know one thing for certain: the path for me has been lined with great moments, and there’s been no better partner in the climb.

Happy Anniversary, Brian.

Why the KISS Principle is More Important than Ever

The KISS Principle: Keep it simple, stupid.

This delightfully abrupt design concept, reportedly introduced by the U.S. Navy in 1960, has long been a guiding rule of engineers and architects, product developers and copywriters alike. And regular readers of the C.Fox intersection know how firmly we hold to the KISS Principle, whether we’re discussing creating sharp digital content, impactful public speaking, or coining the perfect soundbite.

The latest example of why simple writing is important comes via a quirky York University study, which set out to prove conventional wisdom that no one ever reads terms-of-service agreements:

The researchers made up a social networking site … and asked their study participants to sign up for it. Before they could, though, they’d have to agree to the site’s terms and services. Hidden within this agreement document were two strange requests: Is it cool if we share all your information with the NSA? Oh, also, we’re going to go ahead and take your firstborn child as a form of payment, okay?

[As it turned out:] Most people — 98 percent — didn’t even notice the firstborn clause, and just one person out of the 500 study volunteers objected to the NSA policy.”

So, what should we take from this, other than a reminder to read ALL of the fine print?  How about an equally important reminder for all of us as writers that people are far more predisposed to scanning, vs. thoroughly reading any kind of content. (Even this post is no exception. Did you get that?)

So…KISS and write accordingly. This means:

  • Swapping multi-paragraph tomes of information for chunky, bulleted sections of text to draw the reader in to the most important elements of your message.
  • Helping your reader retain complicated concepts by grouping them via the “Rule of Three”.
  • Remembering that keeping the most critical information “above the fold” isn’t advice just for newspaper editors. (As Amy Schade of Nielsen Norman Group writes, “We don’t go to a [web]page, see useless and irrelevant content, and scroll out of the blind hope that something useful may be hidden 5 screens down.”)

If you’re a communicator worth your salt, you already know that the KISS Principle is important. But adhering to it in your writing, at every opportunity, is what makes the difference between wasted moments and critical opportunities to move your mission forward.

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The Power of a Good Reset

It’s been more than 15 years since I graduated college but right about this time each August, I get the urge to hit a reset button. It’s as though I’m preparing to hit the books once again. I commit to a more intense exercise regime. I pick up the pace on my business book reading. I break out fresh new notebooks, I clean out my desk drawers, and I read (and re-read) my business goals for the year.

Then, my focus kicks into high gear.

Turns out I’m not alone in this little mental exercise, and it’s not only a good thing for my health, it can be a great thing for business. Here are three principles I abide by in my end-of-summer reset:

  • Tune Out Before You Burn Out: I realize that I’m able to do such a reset because I did what I hope you’ve taken time to do: I find time to tune out, to ensure that I don’t burn out. In his research paper, “Doing Nothing and Nothing to Do: The Hidden Value of Empty Time and Boredom,”author Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries writes: “The secret of truly successful, creative people may well be that they learned very early in life how not to be busy.” It’s uncomfortable at first, and it’s taken me years to get there, but to perform at your best, you must give yourself a true mental break, even if you don’t think it’s possible. Indeed, there’s always a way to work in a good break, especially if you want to prevent burn out. You—and your organization—will be stronger a result.
  • Force Some Perspective: Leaders operate today with a speed unlike ever before, given the need to evolve business structure, develop and introduce new products, and adapt to new funding streams and opportunities before the opportunity passes. It can be exhausting. But that exhaustion can be channeled into energy with a little perspective. As Glenn Llopis wrote in Forbes, “When you make it a point to stop, reflect and assess your actions, tendencies and behaviors, you will begin to see certain patterns that you can improve upon and/or eliminate all together.” Llopis suggests that every leader periodically ask himself or herself the following three questions: “What must I keep doing?”, “What must I start doing?”, and “What must I stop doing?” I take my answers to those questions to heart in these final weeks of summer, and I make it a point to check back in on them every four weeks through the fall.
  • Encourage Greater Things for Yourself and Your Team: I know from more than a decade of experience in leading my own business that the energy of a company is born from the top. When I am “off,” my team feels off. So my own mental reset is designed to ensure the best in me and those around me. As we head into this new season, consider your own leadership reset to encourage decisiveness in your team, to encourage big, bold and creative thinking, to encourage trying (and where appropriate, some failing), and risk-taking. Some of my best work happens every year in the fall and it’s not by chance.

Finding time for a reset can feel daunting for some, but the best place to start is by listening—especially to your body, your family and your colleagues. You may be surprised how much renewed focus you find in the process.

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Beware of the Unforced Error

World-records. Frightening injuries. Epic game faces. Renewed cold-war rivalries. I’ve not watched much of the Rio Olympics, but I’ve heard and seen the coverage.

As often the case, the coverage of the Games has generated its own share of coverage. It’s no easy job reporting on the Games. There are hours and hours and pages and pages of analysis needed to fill the gaps between advertisements spanning the two-plus weeks of events. Those hours and pages are bound to yield the occasional slip up here and there. But how do the slip ups happen? Are they unavoidable? Here are a few that captured much attention this past week:

“Wife of a Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.”

One commentator suggested that “the guy responsible” for Katinka Hosszu’s win of the women’s 400-meter individual medley and new world-record was Shane Tusup, her husband and coach.

Following a qualifying round and discussing the U.S. gymnastics team standing together a commentator stated they, “might as well be standing in the middle of a mall.” (Among other issues, it seems the wrong decade for any mall-based commentary given what’s happening to mall foot-traffic, but I digress.)

To me, these statements suffer from a failure to grasp an important part of communication: timing. In the context of the Olympics, the moment should be squarely on the competitors—win or lose, male or female. If one has ever looked at or set foot in the arena of competition or performance in any domain, athletic or otherwise, one understands that the moment of execution—the success or failure of all the work gone into something—ultimately rests with the competitor/performer so often in a single pivotal moment. Yes, coaches, sparring partners, pace setters, nutritionists, spouses can all have a role in some way. But the execution, the actual pressure-ridden delivery of performance, is the most direct propellant of winning or losing. Some of those covering these Games might benefit from a recalibration of perspective to remember that the moment belongs to the participant. It’s not always necessary or the right time to tell the story behind the story. Sometimes the story right in front of us is the one that needs telling.

So as we head into the last week of the Rio Games and whatever pivotal moments may come, perhaps there’s room to consider the timing that we each insert into our own communications “games”. Focus on what’s right in front of you, and give that its due time. You may find those unforced communications errors start to slide away in the process.

Defining Moments

Two years ago, I sat at a small table in New Orleans across from the Heron Foundation’s Clara Miller. We were together at the invitation of Mauricio Lim Miller, of the Family Independence Initiative, who had invited us to New Orleans to meet a vibrant community of families who were running businesses, improving the health of their communities, preserving their heritage, and working together to strengthen their community from the inside out.

Following that trip, I wrote this reflection to Mauricio:

“A few times in my life, I’ve been lucky enough to feel like I was on the ground floor of something very special — something that had the potential to change the way people think, or act, or engage, in an effort with the aim to improve our world in some way. Not until New Orleans did I feel that I was on the ground floor of something that could change the dynamic of this country in such a powerful way.”

That trip was a defining moment for me. By showcasing the value of investing in initiative, it directly influenced how I approach my own work and philanthropy. What I hadn’t realized on that trip was just how much Mauricio’s big idea has helped to define the work of others, including Clara Miller.

Earlier this summer, I came across this commentary,  in which Clara Miller wrote: “It wasn’t that our mission (to help Americans help themselves out of poverty) needed revisiting; regrettably, that was more needed and relevant than ever. What needed some fresh thought was how we expected to achieve it, and what progress we had been making thus far, if any.”

It’s a hard – but necessary – question for any organization to ask itself: what progress have we been making, if any?

Both Millers have been adamant about asking themselves that question, and they’re working hard to ensure the answer is a good one. Clara is blazing new ground in how her foundation invests in and measures success in tackling poverty. And Mauricio continues to build momentum around his unorthodox approach to poverty alleviation, which is helping hundreds of families double their savings and increase their income.

These two social innovators are at the forefront of the impact investing movement, from two unique perspectives. They are defining what it means to drive a mission forward, which is why I am so excited to host an intimate conversation with them next month at The Chronicle of Philanthropy here in Washington, DC, as part of our ongoing #MissionForward series.

A limited number of seats remain for you to join us on September 15, and I hope you’ll accept this message as an invitation to attend, and to be inspired, as I know I will be.

Unlikely Heroism

In a world with no shortage of bad news these days, sometimes we can find comfort in the unlikeliest of places.  When it feels like the day-in, day-out political sniping of election season has us by the throat, we relish shaking it all off with a good laugh. And when the discourse of the day seems reduced to the transactional, to the ‘what have you done for me lately?’s’ – it is during these times that the simple kindness of strangers can be a much-needed relief.

Indeed, during these dark days of a year some are considering as ‘the worst year in history’ and others already wrote off months ago, there’s one person who can always be counted on to shine a little light.  And it is this person – “personality” might be the better word – whose light shines in one of the quirkiest places of all: the Twitterverse.

I’m talking about @darth, of Twitter fame.  Not the Star Wars anti-hero, but the little red panda obsessed with potatoes and cuddly pets. And quite honestly one of the kindest human (?) beings on the planet.

Now, I’m not the first one to point out @darth’s unusual penchant for what we at C.Fox like to call “doing good for the good of others”.  Long the subject of media admiration and speculation, @darth’s been lauded for critically-acclaimed Photoshop skills, and his/her unlikely, but hugely influential, championing of adopting shelter animals – especially the neediest and cutest of canines.  All of these skills provide real-life evidence of the power of using social media for good.  And @darth is at his or her internet-best when relaying those gentle and sweet observations about friendship and kindness at the most unexpected times and places.

Just who is this spreader of sunshine?  Your guess is as good as mine.  All I’ve been able to piece together is that @darth appears to live on the West Coast (Bay Area, I believe). And although s/he seems connected to the media industry in some way, his (or her) identity has still been the subject of much media speculation (not to mention failed attempts at uncovering).

Long-time @darth-watcher and Washington Post reporter Caitlin Dewey has observed that @darth has staying power, and more:

The account dates back to 2007, but didn’t pick up steam until roughly the time of the 2012 elections. Since then, Darth … has developed a few great shticks: mashing up movie posters with current events, for instance, and adding Christmas hats to his followers’ photos on request. […] This goes a long way toward explaining Darth’s popularity. […] In fact, Darth’s success functions as a pretty decent case study of the diffuse way cultural information and trends seep through Twitter — bestowed less by major media organizations or other traditional authorities, and more by a scattered echelon of ‘influencers’ who together command an audience of hundreds of thousands of followers.”

So here’s to you, @darth, champion of such feel-good hashtags and memes as #hugadog, “Goodbye weekend we’ll miss you,” and (in this writer’s humble opinion) the funniest open tweet-thread of missed messaging opportunities surrounding the recent political conventions.  Thank you for not just showing us how social media influence can be used for good, but for restoring our faith in humanity, and spreading a little light and goodness along the way.

I Can Do Better.

On Wednesday night, four of the NBA’s biggest stars took the stage at the ESPY Awards with an important message, about the role they want athletes to take in supporting social issues in America.

LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, donning black suits, kicked off the night by taking several minutes to speak directly to the audience about getting involved in issues like gun violence, racial injustice, and police brutality that impact Americans every day.

The words were some we’ve heard a lot in recent months“We can do better.” “We must not sit idly by.” “We can’t turn our heads to the severity of this issue when our lives get busy again.” These are the same words used regularly by government leaders, community activists, parents, teachers, police chiefs.

For as often as we hear that line, “we can do better”, it never quite moves people to action. And yet, something about this message felt different.  Enough to compel me to dig in deeper.

That digging led me to this Vanity Fair article by Krista Smith that shared that backstory of the statement made during the ESPY Awards.

Turns out that the idea was born directly from the four athletes several days ago, after Anthony posted an Instagram photo from the “Ali Summit” in June 1967 when the nation’s top black athletes including Bill Russell, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar flanked Muhammad Ali at a news conference in support of his decision to object his induction into the Vietnam War. As Smith writes, “Bill Rhoden of the New York Times called the civil rights milestone “the first—and last—time that so many African American athletes at that level came together to support a controversial cause.”

As Smith shared, “the four contemporary stars were inspired by the historic gathering, and decided over their daily group text-messages to unite nearly 50 summers later to stand for social justice. They coordinated their wardrobe to stand in unity, so people would listen to what they were saying rather than be distracted by what they were wearing.”

I can’t say if the message will have an effect, but there was something in the message that I particularly appreciated: the athletes took it upon themselves to make a statement. They challenged themselves to do better, before they challenged their community of fellow athletes to do better.

Indeed, there has been no shortage of that line “we can do better” in recent months, and I suspect its use may only increase with time. President Obama used it just last week in response to the deadly police shootings, and he’s used it countless times in conversations and speeches related to gun violence.

But, what we know is if we want to motivate real change, we need to call on ourselves first. We all have a role to play in shaping our future. And yes, we can do better. But first, I’ll focus on doing my part.

Perhaps if we can all say that, positive change might actually be on the horizon.

Bird by Bird

There’s nothing like a good beach read.

And thanks to this recent Quartz post, there’s even more value in that “book reading by the sea” process than you might think. Here’s a quick excerpt from psychotherapist Robin Rosenberg:

“In our regular lives we’re all over-scheduled, and probably stressed,” says Rosenberg. In addition to that stress, Rosenberg refers to the heavy ‘cognitive load’ we carry each day—the constant need to sort and weigh information in an overstimulated environment. “When you’re sitting on a beach, the cognitive load is very low,” says Rosenberg. “[When reading] You have time to wonder, to let your mind wander, to be really curious, to be introspective if you’re an introspective person.”

So, if you’ve got a beach trip lined up, or if you’re just on the hunt for a good summer read, I’d like to offer my official recommendation. (Bonus: It won’t just entertain you; it’ll help you grow as a communicator and a productive leader, too.)

The book is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Although packaged as writerly advice (which Lamott doles out effortlessly and humorously, with chapter titles like “False Starts” and “$%^& First Drafts”), the insights it reveals resonate across disciplines. It’s especially helpful if you’re a person who finds yourself constantly short on time but overwhelmed by projects you need to tackle and results you need to show.

There’s a lot to be said for reading Bird by Bird in its entirety, and I was pleased to learn that Quartz’s managing editor agreed (She called it “a good transition book at the start of vacation, when she wasn’t quite ready to dive into mindlessness.”)  For now, to whet your appetite, here are three of my favorite life lessons from the book:

  1. Baby steps absolutely count. In the most memorable passage, Lamott shares a beloved family story about how to move the mountains that overwhelm you.  Whether your mountain is a book report, a research paper, or even that first novel – you can get it done, but only by taking that first terrifying, little step:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day…[H]e was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

  1. Get to the heart of what matters.  Both good writers and strong leaders recognize the importance of stripping away the excess.  As Lamott observes, in describing what she learned after the death of a good friend: “That’s how real life works… and this is what good writing allows us to notice sometimes. You can see the underlying essence only when you strip away the busyness, and then some surprising connections appear.”  How does this relate to our day-to-day lives as communicators?  It’s simple: Don’t say in two paragraphs what you can tell your reader in two strong, evocative sentences.  Or don’t beat around the bush when sharing constructive criticism with a colleague – they’ll respect you more when you cut to the chase. Get the point – the heart – of what you’re trying to say, and you’ll be far more successful every time.
  1. Know when to put things to bed.  For those of us in the business of helping organizations tackle outsized problems and challenges, a critical lesson of the book comes in a chapter unassumingly titled, “How Do You Know When You’re Done?” Lamott notes that this is a question her writing students constantly ask, and it is one that she also struggles to answer.  But her advice rings clear when she says to stop when you feel done, adding: “Of course, there will always be more you could do, but you have to remind yourself that perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.”  It’s funny, to be sure, but it’s also a good admonishment to resist circling and circling on that proposal that you insist could be better phrased, or that message platform that’s taken weeks and weeks to get exactly right.

So whether you’ve read it before, or not – I hope you’ll make Bird by Bird your next beach read this summer. You’ll be astonished by what you’ll take away from it – one step, one word, or one bird at a time.