The world has lost one of its most lyrical, expansive novelists and a master of the written word.
Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize winner and celebrated writer of books including “Beloved,” “Song of Solomon,” and “The Bluest Eye” died Monday at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. She was 88.
“She was an extremely devoted mother, grandmother, and aunt who reveled in being with her family and friends. The consummate writer who treasured the written word, whether her own, her students or others, she read voraciously and was most at home when writing,” her family said. “Although her passing represents a tremendous loss, we are grateful she had a long, well lived life.”
Morrison’s work focused on African American life and culture, and she dominated an industry in which depictions of black life were often limited and rooted in stereotype.
Many shared quotes and remembrances of the powerful writer.
Toni Morrison was a national treasure, as good a storyteller, as captivating, in person as she was on the page. Her writing was a beautiful, meaningful challenge to our conscience and our moral imagination. What a gift to breathe the same air as her, if only for a while. pic.twitter.com/JG7Jgu4p9t
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 6, 2019
“If you look at the world as a brutal game, then you bump into the mystery of the tree-shaped scar. There seems to be such a thing as grace, such a thing as beauty, such a thing as harmony. All of which are wholly free and available to us.” Your life was our gift, #ToniMorrison pic.twitter.com/wcD7w9zKYp
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) August 6, 2019
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Toni Morrison pic.twitter.com/0IlZSG6ZcE
— Aminatou Sow (@aminatou) August 6, 2019
Today we remember Toni Morrison, a brave activist, feminist writer, and inspiring figure in literature whose works will transcend the test of time. Thank you for the legacy. 🖤 pic.twitter.com/I8bxuy3fbz
— UN Women (@UN_Women) August 6, 2019
The author offered many compelling insights over a lifetime of writing and public speaking, and some of her pearls of wisdom have particular power for communicators. Here’s some of the advice she had for those who wanted to touch the souls of others:
1. “You wanna fly, you got to give up the thing that weighs you down.”
When looking to boost your message, inspire your readers and grow your audience, sometimes less is more. Look for the dead weight you might be carrying, and figure out what your organization can live without.
2. “Anger… it’s a paralyzing emotion… People sort of think it’s an interesting, passionate, and igniting feeling—I don’t think it’s any of that—it’s helpless… it’s absence of control—I have no use for it whatsoever.”
This observation has particular relevance for marketers and brand managers who work on social media. The algorithms that govern these platforms seem to prioritize passionate outbursts and snarky putdowns, but those emotions might not be a good fit for your brand. Think about how you can use emotion to grow your audience and strengthen your message.
3. “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”
Make sure you define yourself and your organization, whether that’s with a well-timed crisis response, a rebranding or a consistent content strategy. Don’t let someone else decide who you are. Make your own image, and sell it.
4. “Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.”
Many communicators are word nerds, but when did you last take a moment to think about the power of your language? What do you want to do with your power to name something, describe it in detail or define it with a captivating story? How can you use your power to benefit your organization?
5. “As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think.”
With the crisis of consumer confidence that communicators face, it’s essential to be thoughtful about how you occupy a place of public trust. How do you want to preserve the trust your audience places in you? What do you want to promote from your platform?
6. “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”
Many organizations have learned this lesson as traditional news media outlets have shrunk their staff and newsrooms. If you want to read a story about your organization or leadership team, maybe you should be the one to write it. Have a content strategy in place, and share your expertise in guest articles, through your online newsroom and on your social media channels.
7. “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”
As you progress in your career and life, what do you want to do with the expertise and skills you have acquired? Perhaps you can mentor a younger PR pro. Maybe you can use your skills to help a nonprofit or promote a community cause.
8. “A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.”
What inspires your work? The best stories are the ones that feel inevitable, that have an inherent pull on the writer to share. When looking for stories about your organization to highlight for internal or external audiences, find something essential about human nature and your organization’s unique mission. Don’t think that your industry is too boring to make a good story, either.
9. “At some point in life, the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough.”
Sometimes your embellishment is unnecessary. Don’t be afraid to let your message stand on its own two feet.
10. “Make up a story. … For our sake and yours, forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”
A key function for communicators is to tell stories. Lean into the fears and concerns of your audience and help them find the light.
Do you have a favorite quotation from Toni Morrison? Please share it in the comments.