By Lisa Bergson I have a confession to make. I've been living a double life. It finally caught up with me. I felt it on my trail during a recent visit to Shanghai with one of our scientists. The competition "is reading your columns," he tells me, referring specifically to one of our rivals, as we hang out in our booth on the first and slowest day of the Semicon China trade show.
"Oh, yeah?" I reply. This is not welcome news. One of my defenses against writers' block is to pretend that no one in my market reads the columns -- not my employees, business associates, and certainly not the competition. Otherwise, I might become self-conscious, contrived, or downright stymied. This way, I'm able to keep the work as honest and direct as possible, as if I'm confiding in a stranger on a plane or talking to a shrink -- as though nothing said here at BusinessWeek Online will impact real life. I wanted the columns to have that kind of intensity, a sense of really being in the moment.
DIPLOMATIC RESPONSE. My goal was to present business life stripped of the hype and pretense, but also as something more glorious, more painful, and, at times, far sillier than is typically portrayed. (Dilbert gets the silliness and the cynicism, yet none of the nobility or the genuine effort I see daily. It is brilliant, but one-dimensional, a comic strip.)
"What do they think of them?" I ask, trying to seem blas
"They say it's interesting," the scientist replies, equally noncommittal. So no big deal, right? With a twinge, I reflect on a piece I just submitted, which could be interpreted as a sign of weakness. It could be used against us. But, "interesting" sounded harmless enough.
The following week, I'm back at the plant, trading trade-show stories with Borys, our national sales director, who has just returned from the big annual Pittsburgh Conference show in Chicago. We're seated at the red-topped Alvar Alto table in a cozy nook outside his office, and as the conversation winds down, I start to gather up my notes. In a rare sign of emotion, he blurts, "Before you go, I have to tell you something."
HARD TO SAY. Borys gulps, his throat working. "I don't know if I should say this" he pauses. I've never known Borys to be at a loss for words. He's leaving, I think. Someone's made him a better offer. I brace myself for the worst.
"I know you're going in so many directions, Lisa but, your columns -- the competition is using them to sell against us," he relates.
"I heard they were reading them, but how can they use them against us? The values are sopositive," I counter, relieved that he's not leaving after all.
"They can highlight certain things, take them out of context. The customers don't always have time to read the whole column," he explains, before pleading, "Couldn't you write something more positive? Maybe say how we've solved the quality problems?"
SOMETHING WORTH WRITING. Now I feel awful. Here I am exhorting these poor guys to sell, while my alter ego is sabotaging our every effort. I e-mail my editor, Roger, about my dilemma. Always supportive, he responds, "The one thing you should never do is hurt your business." While he goes home to Australia for a couple weeks' vacation, I vacillate over the columns. I don't want to stop writing them, but I can't sit around and pound out self-serving pap. You don't read me for that.
Meanwhile, at work I interview a steady stream of candidates for a sales position. Ironically, these guys profess to enjoy the columns. (Not that I bring it up -- they volunteer their admiration.) They claim the stories make them want to work at MEECO. I start to wonder if customers actually find my writing so deleterious? After all, they're in business too. They must realize that my competitors have problems, as well. The difference is, I admit to them.
By telling it like it is, am I doing a disservice to my business? After four years with BusinessWeek OnLine, I'm too far gone to write any other way. I've come to treasure the freedom I have here. Indeed, the more I think about it, my writing and my business aren't all that different. Like the columns, our analytical equipment is accurate, robust, reliable, witty, sleek, and service-oriented. There, Borys, I wrote something positive. Lisa Bergson is president and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, she was a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies' Web sites at www.meeco.com and www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at email@example.com