Skip the secret sauce

My shelf of hot sauces

Superior State University (ironically named) has an annual list of banished words. This year’s list includes: conversation (as in, “join the conversation”), problematic, stakeholder, price point, secret sauce, giving me life, and physicality.

Part of my job involves putting words together to communicate the value that the company I work with offers. There’s a fine balance between being interesting and being too interesting.

Overused catchphrases can induce rolled eyes, soft sighs of pain or simply a click-away from the web page.

This year, let’s strive to write with words that communicate well, without harm to our readers.

Special thanks to the Wall Street Journal for pointing me to the Superior State University list.



A few weeks back, my car was in the shop for some body work. (An unfortunate accident had occurred that meant some repairs were due.)

I took advantage of my insurance company’s connection with Enterprise Rentals to get a quirky car to drive during the repairs – the Fiat 500L.

Overall, I enjoyed the car’s quirkiness. (It had a few quality issues, but that’s another story.)

fiat 500l drivers manualThe manual was completely worthless – a CD. When inserted into the car’s CD drive, it would not do anything except display an error message. The only way to view the contents was to bring it home and put it into a computer with a CD slot. Then a program had to be installed to make it run!

What happens when a driver is 50 miles from nowhere and has a flat tire? The compressor in the back (no spare tire) had no instructions.

Fiat – please do a little more thinking next time!


Slow Down

Writing with a fountain pen on a postcard, copyright Paul MerrillI’ve discovered the joys of using a fountain pen. It gives me a unique sense of pleasure to feel the pen tip moving across the paper. The paper’s texture enters my brain in a way it never could if I was using my super-smooth ball-point pen.

My sister and her family raise chickens. Sure, it takes a lot more work to keep those birds happy compared to simply buying eggs at their local supermarket. I am sure that the eggs taste better – and that their kids are learning responsibility in a way that schoolwork alone could never do.

The book Words Onscreen (by Naomi Baron) advocates moving away from electronic books – and back to the old paper variety. At least one of the reasons is that printed typography can be better. I’m not sure I am willing to ditch my old Kindle, but it’s worth considering.

Walking or riding a bike to get somewhere takes a lot more time. Time is money, so it can be expensive too. But you’ll smell the roses along the way.

Brewing coffee with a French press takes longer than an electric drip machine. But I like the taste better.

I’ve started sending old postcards, by snailmail, to friends. I like using my fountain pen and making that small analog connection with humans. (Who doesn’t like to get something in the mail?) If you’d like to get a free postcard, send me a note via comments on this post. Then I’ll send you an email to get your address. Apologies, but if you live outside the USA, I can’t afford the postage – about four times more!

Photograph taken by my daughter Rachel.


Full disclosure

sunsetI always feel a tension about how much is appropriate to share. If I lean toward the vulnerable side, my experiences may resonate with some of my readers in a deeper way than otherwise possible. If I lean toward the surface level, I won’t alienate anyone. And how much disclosure is too much?

I’ve been struggling with how to share a significant life event. Last week, my mother-in-law died after a long struggle with many illnesses. Her release from a body that was not working anywhere close to what it did earlier in life was a blessing to her and others. But we greatly miss her – the woman we remember who was funny, loving, nurturing and much more. How can anyone sum up the life of another in a few short words?

I was the first to visit her room at the hospice. I saw her frail form lying with her hands folded, holding a pink rose. I walked to the lobby to wait for her husband to come. Then we went to her room together and cried. I cry, even writing this.

Life is a blessing. Love those around you today.



too-much-talkTL-DNR = “Too Long; Did Not Read.”

This is a phrase that I wish more people would grasp. Few are able to write a good blog post that is fewer than 100 words. Even more critical than brevity is the ability to capture the reader’s attention. Our world is so fractured into special interests that very few blogs can capture the interest of wide audiences.

Faithful readers of this humble blog are few, because I knowingly write about almost anything and everything. If I wanted to focus, I could grab more readers, but making money from this blog is not my goal. I only desire to connect with a few people at a deeper than surface level: “I totally agree with you!” Or, “You are completely off-base, but I can now understand why you feel that way.”

Shiny Bits of Life are often small things that are insignificant to most people. I love uncovering the obscure and bringing it to life for the few who enjoy the same.

Thanks for joining me on the ride.


Secret combination

rexona soap from kenyaAlmost twenty years ago, Heather and I lived with a very gracious family in rural Kenya, for two weeks. Learning how real people lived was part of a training program to orient us to life there. (We went on to live in East Africa for five years.)

Peter, our main host, was on break from college. He served as our translator and cultural broker, fluently speaking English, Kikamba and Swahili. He loved to listen to Kenyan radio, powered by a large car battery. I will never forget the Rexona commercials. We heard them every morning, whether we wanted to or not – the walls weren’t very thick.

The commercial was totally in Swahili – except for the slogan, “Rexona – Secret Combination!” Rexona was a brand of soap, with touted qualities to make your skin amazing. The “R” at the front of the phrase was always trilled.

Why do I bring this up? Food Babe got Budweiser to list their popular beer’s ingredients for the first time. Rice might not be on the top of everyone’s list for what makes a quality beer, but then again, Budweiser is probably not on the top of everyone’s list as being a quality beer.

Mystery in ingredients can be a good thing or a bad thing. For Rexona, it was good. For Budweiser, maybe not so good.



drip coffee filterFilters help us relate to other people. When we see someone with their hair messed up (and not on purpose), do we tell them about their problem or keep it to ourselves? Do we share our political views without considering the majority perspective of those in the room? When we see something wrong, do we speak up and fight for what we feel is right?

Everyone falls somewhere on the scale of having a weak filter (readily saying what’s on our minds) to having a powerful filter (rarely saying anything). And it’s good that both types exist. If confronting people didn’t exist, nothing would ever get done. (And there would be a lot of mismatched outfits). If sensitive types didn’t exist, there would be a lot more wars.

I am glad for the diversity of creation.

Special thanks to my brother Bill. Our brief discussion of filters during his recent visit spurred this post.


The name flush

missing nameI have a great ability to forget your name immediately after you tell me. This is not good.

Why do I forget? Maybe at a subconscious level, I think I don’t need to remember your name. Definitely, I am overwhelmed with keeping up with the flood of information I need to remember for work or to keep the wheels of life spinning. In any case, when I forget your name, I am cheating you. I am cheating myself. At a very basic level, if I remember your name, I am telling you that I value you. I am opening the door to a relationship and am showing you I think you are worth getting to know.

Work with me on this. Let’s try to remember names.


Back in time

old drawing in a textbookFifty years ago, a college student was bored while reading advertising principles. Little did he know that fifty years later, another person would be entertained by his sketches. And there is no way he would have known his sketches would be seen by people all over the world.

As I was doing research at the University of Denver library, I stumbled on these sketches. The book holding the sketches was published in 1923. The sketches were done around 1962, judging by the car.

Fifty years from now, it will probably be easier for people to see what we were doing today than it is for us to get snapshots of life going the other direction. It’s fun to get little glimpses into the past!


Look the other way

1995 Vauxhall Tigra car spreadCreativity is elusive sometimes. When you reach the bottom of your cup, it can be hard to find inspiration.

One new direction is to think the opposite of the way you would normally think. The designers of this brochure, circa 1995, used a red car and primary headline bar to illustrate Green – the complete opposite.

And it worked. If the designers had used a green car and a green headline bar, the result would be … boring.