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I was seriously injured in a motor vehicle collision – and I made every word count

Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t written a blog post, attended professional meetings, participated in conferences, taught speechwriting classes, or conducted workshops in recent months.

An explanation:

Back in the autumn, en route to visit an elderly aunt in Central Pennsylvania, I took Amtrak from Philadelphia to Lancaster PA. Less than 10 minutes after leaving the Lancaster train station as a passenger in a car, I was seriously injured in a motor vehicle collision. (And yes, I was wearing a seat belt – I always do.)

The chest pain was stunning. More frightening, I had an immediate loss of lung power. Unable to speak in those initial moments, I texted my Power of Attorney, my alternate Power of Attorney, and my doctor.

Never did words mean more to me. In a situation totally out of my control (talking was almost impossible), the ability to text people who could help was empowering. I made every word count.

An EMT team placed me in an ambulance (without using a neck brace, if you can imagine that) and took me to the Trauma Unit of Lancaster General Hospital. At some point, I lost consciousness.

The trauma unit diagnosed broken ribs, a hematoma on my chest, thoracic contusions, bruises/lacerations, an injured foot, and a concussion.

As an independent speechwriter, coach, and media trainer, I’ve earned my living via words – working steadily in my own business since How To Write & Give A Speech came out in 1984. Suddenly, I couldn’t work.

Talk is my business. Broken ribs immediately put that business on hold.

Phone coaching had to be declined.

Invitations to teach at conferences had to be declined.

Corporate workshops had to be declined.

Computer time was strictly limited. Initially, it was impossible. The concussion had made it difficult for my eyes to focus.

Headaches appeared out of nowhere. A lifelong reader, I couldn’t open a book.

Eye “floaters” (read: black shapeless blobs) moved across my eye – disturbing both my vision and my concentration. Any writing was a challenge, to put it mildly.

For the first couple weeks, I couldn’t write even write a check. Writing a full speech? Unimaginable. 140 characters were pretty much my limit.

Noises became magnified – even soft classical music would hurt my ears. I needed silence to recover.

One time my son called me from Singapore, and I told him I couldn’t take “all the noise” in the background. He wondered what I meant: What noise? It turns out, he had water running in his kitchen sink. From half way around the world, even the faint sound of running water was too much.

That’s why I didn’t tell my online communities about the crash: I couldn’t process emails and couldn’t handle phone calls. Mostly I just rested quietly, as my doctors had ordered.

I told only a few clients. They were so considerate, thoughtful, and flexible. I told only my closest friends – asking them to not spread the news because talking and emailing tired me too much.

Medical professionals termed me “home bound” and assigned home health care for the first two months after the crash. I’m glad to report: Physical therapy works. I’m getting better. I’m looking ahead, not back.

But limitations continue.

Taking Amtrak from Philadelphia to coach clients in NYC or DC? Still not possible. (For the first month, it was hard to get out of a chair due to broken ribs.)

Physical therapy continues to rebuild my stamina. But flying to rehearse clients? That day has not yet come.

The home health care nurse said I was the most compliant patient she’s ever had. Well, yes. Let me put it this way:

When you’re happily self-employed … and suddenly you’re put out of business because two drivers had a collision … and you can’t walk 50 feet … and you can’t grocery shop … and you can’t visit friends … and you don’t know when you can even attend a professional conference, let alone lead a workshop at one … and you can’t go on a vacation … and you can’t do the work you love with clients who feel like family after all these years … well yes, you are highly motivated to recover from your injuries.

Compliant? File me under “Compliant Plus.” I want to get back to life and back to work. I’ll do all the PT it takes to get me there.

I’ve built my career on words, and strong communication skills have proven essential in handling my medical management tasks. Make no mistake: Recovering from a serious motor vehicle collision makes medical management a full time job. I spend hours each week just seeing doctors and processing the paperwork that powers their offices.

As my body recovers from these injuries, I’ll resume my career because I base my life on this fundamental truth: Words matter.

I saw the power of words when I was texting the people I needed from the back seat of that demolished car. “Help me” – and they did.

PS … The last blog post I wrote before my 11/11/17 motor vehicle collision was about the National Association of Government Communicators. During this post-crash period, I’ve missed all the online camaraderie with the terrific writers and communicators in my network: American Society of Journalists & Authors, International Association of Business Communicators, Philadelphia Public Relations Association, Authors Guild, Global Philadelphia, and NAGC. Catch-up sounds good.

I can’t respond to personal emails as quickly as I’d like, and I certainly can’t blog as often as I want. I’m still mending.

You know how it is:

Time, time. Tincture of time.

How to train your boss about communications

Mentoring Up: Training Your Boss About Communications Without Alienating Him or Her

NAGC President,  Kathryn Stokes November 15, 2017, 1:00-2:00 p.m. Eastern

Government agencies are rife with political appointees who are put in their positions for a lot of reasons, none of which include their ability to communicate. Often, they have no idea what their new agency does or why. It is up to us as the professional government communicators in our organizations to remedy this situation.

In “Mentoring Up,” NAGC President Kathryn Stokes uses her thirty-plus years of experience, most in the private sector, to show government communicators her tips for “handling” new appointees (without seeming to handle them).

Over her ten years in government service, she has used these techniques to move projects from idea to fruition, gaining the respect and trust of her agency leadership along the way. Kathryn will share discreet ways to not only educate a new leader but to gain her or his confidence. She’ll give us ideas for dealing with folks who feel they do not need help and pass on her own best practices for moving mountains—a little at a time.

Register Now for “Mentoring Up,” Wednesday, November 15.

If you have a question about an upcoming webinar, contact NAGC Headquarters at (703) 538-1787 or

A few words about introducing a speaker

For starters, don’t read any introduction from your cell phone. I’ve watched this several times, and it was always a disaster: squinting eyes, inaccurate scrolls, “Oops, I lost it”, “Just a moment – I’ll find it”, no eye contact with the audience, and no eye contact with the speaker being introduced.

Do not read a canned introduction from a cell phone. Do not read an HR bio from a cell phone. Do not read a LinkedIn profile from a cell phone. Are we clear on this?

Instead, write a great introduction and print it out. In just 1-2 minutes, a great intro explains:

  • Why is this speaker
  • from this organization
  • talking about this topic
  • to this audience
  • at this time?
  • Joan-Detz_CPC

Become known for giving great introductions. It’s a valuable career asset.

What will you do this week to get involved in a professional organization?

I rejoined the International Association of Business Communicators – Philadelphia Chapter. I started my career as a member in the New York City chapter – seldom missing a meeting.

Keep in mind:

You don’t have to join a professional organization to start getting involved. You can follow an organization on Twitter (IABC has great #commchats), get practical info through the group’s website, go to a local chapter meeting, grow professionally by attending the annual conference (I’ve presented on speechwriting at several international conferences and can vouch that IABC provides a well-run learning experience), or visit a distant chapter when you’re traveling.

Did you know, for example, that Toastmasters has chapters around the world? If you take a business trip to Singapore or vacation in Ireland, why not attend a nearby Toastmasters meeting? You’ll get a warm welcome – and boost your global network.

Each week, I do one thing to boost my engagement in a professional organization. I look forward to becoming more active in IABC again.

How will you grow this week?

Foreign Book Covers

NAGC webinar: What internal communicators can learn from the contact center world

E-mailing Customers and Colleagues: What Internal Communicators Can Learn from the Contact Center World

Wed Oct 18 Webinar (1-2pm, ET) from the National Association of Government Communicators

With Leslie O’Flahaven of e-Write

So much e-mail, so little time. You need to get critical agency information into the hands of your colleagues, but their inboxes are inundated. When your messages arrive, they’re rarely opened, let alone read.

What if you took a different approach to your writing? Could you craft messages that will be opened, read, and (hallelujah!) responded to? Yes! By using lessons learned from contact centers, where customer service representatives deal with questions and complaints by using effective subject lines, empathy, integrated online resources, and templates that don’t sound like form letters.

Leslie O’Flahaven will walk us through the steps in NAGC’s October 18 edition of Webinar Wednesday.

Can’t wait ’til then? Check out her online training on

Register now

National Association of Government Communicators offers crisis communications presentation

Join NAGC this Friday October 6th for Encore!

Uprising: A City Divided With Mark Basnight Senior Public Affairs Training Specialist, National Public Affairs Academy, Argonne National Laboratory

In crisis communications, you can’t know what’s coming. But you can look ahead to prepare for the unexpected. And you can look back to learn from what others have been through. At our next Encore! presentation, emergency management communications expert Mark Basnight will walk us through Charlotte, North Carolina’s public response to the riots that broke out just a year ago following the officer-involved death of a local man.

Why was the situation extraordinary?

How did two different narratives emerge?

When did officials begin to respond?

What did Charlotte learn from the division among its citizens?

Mr. Basnight’s session was standing room only at the June Communications School. This is your chance to hear his riveting story and why the lessons learned in Charlotte will be critical to other government communicators in the future.

Register now

Boost your clout as a writer or speaker: Develop strong research skills

September is Month. If you don’t already own a card for your local public library, get one now.

Then get cards for major libraries throughout the country.

You don’t have to be a resident of Philadelphia to apply for a card at Philly’s terrific Free Library. While you’re at it, follow @FreeLibrary to learn about all the digital resources available to you.

You don’t have to be a New York City resident to apply for a card at the NY Public Library. Getting your NYPL card this is easy – and so worth it.  Be sure to follow @nypl on Twitter to get up-to-date info on reference sources (from podcasts to lists to Ask The Librarian).

Check this blog space in the days ahead for more reference tools.

Remember: Your speeches and presentations can only be as strong as the research you put into them.


IABC regional conference: Heritage Region

The 2017 IABC Heritage Region Conference is fast approaching You can now download the complete conference brochure to review the schedule and learn more about the speakers for this year’s 4 KEYNOTES and 21 BREAKOUT SESSIONS.

Be sure to check out the schedule and explore the complete list of speakers. Join us in one of the “17 Best Places to Travel” in 2017 according to Harper’s Bazaar to:

  • LEARN from some of the best in the field
  • CONNECT through networking opportunities
  • COMMUNICATE with speakers and fellow attendees

There’s still time to register! Visit to take advantage of low early bird pricing through October 2.

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