Filling in the Blanks with Laura Olin

From annoying flatmates to secret crushes, there's always someone you'd like to say something to. In issue 32, we enlisted the help of Laura Olin's brilliant new book Form Letters to do the hard work for us. Out now, it's a book of blank letter templates that can be applied to almost every person and event. Laura - who is behind the cult Everything Changes newsletter and handled social media for Barack Obama's (and now Hillary Clinton's) presidential campaign - knows a thing or two about effective communication. 

We asked Laura to fill us in on a few of her communication secrets...


How did you come up with the idea for the Everything Changes newsletter? What did you want to achieve with it?  

I work in politics as a digital campaigner, so I've run a lot of email programs, written emails signed by the President (no, he doesn't write his own emails), etc. A few years ago I was thinking about all the cool things you can do with email that you can't really explore in politics because political email usually has the very focused goal of fundraising. So I thought a newsletter that changed every week would be a fun way to experiment with the form and give myself a creative outlet at the same time. The name comes from the Twitter profile of a friend of mine, Tim Carmody. He has a couple sentences in there that I've always loved: "Everything changes. Don't be afraid."


Tell us about some of the different themes. Which did you especially enjoy? 

I think my two favourites were what I called a "Thought Clock" - I asked people over the course of a few days, at different times of day, what they were thinking about right at that moment. Then I compiled everyone's answers into a 24-hour catalogue of thoughts for every hour of the day - Thought Clock! My other favourite is when I asked people how they've made, or are making, the decision whether or not to have kids. People sent in such thoughtful, amazing responses. 

I also have a lot of fondness for the week I did form letters, because that led to my book! One week, I thought it would be fun to apply the idea of filling in the blanks in a standard form letter to something you actually want to say to someone in your every day life - maybe helping people find the words to say awkward or hard things, and have a bit of fun with it.

Do you have a favourite letter in the book?

I think my favourite is the "To my dog"/"To my cat" spread.

Do you know of anyone who has used them yet?

A friend of mine actually used one to get one over on me on Twitter about a friendly argument we were having. That was humbling. 


Tell us about the RTW newsletter. We love the tagline of “For women who want a more equal world”!

Thank you! As I work in politics and I'm a woman, I have a lot of thoughts about the place of women in our society and how we can improve it. RTW is a little step toward getting people information that might help them make concrete positive steps toward gender equality in their own lives, and unite people for that cause.

How did you get the gig working on the Obama campaign?

Luck and timing. I happened to know the people who had the job of running the digital team of the 2012 campaign thrust upon them rather suddenly. I was a competent person they could call on and was in a good place to take that job - I was actually living in London at the time so it meant moving across the world to Chicago at short notice, but it was very worth it. 

Are there any moments that you are particularly proud of?

My favourite part of the campaign was actually not dissimlilar to what I regularly do on the newsletter - asking people what they think about stuff, then sharing their stories (with their consent of course). That bread-and-butter stuff was part of the heart of our digital campaign, I think - reminding the country of the real people around the country who had an enormous stake in that election and its outcome.

What are the main differences between the Obama campaign and the Hillary one?
The dynamics are so different because she's the first woman, and Trump is the first… Trump. After 10 years of working in politics, this year has just been unbelievably surreal to see. On any given day, something happens that we'd be talking about for a month in any regular campaign cycle. It's like the 2012 election was on earth and the 2016 election is on Mars.

Back on earth, what newsletters should we be subscribing to?
I really love Julia Carpenter's A Woman You Should Know, which introduces you to an amazing woman from history every day, and Carrie Frye's Black Cardigan, which is lovely and literary and doesn't have anything to do with politics at all. 

What do you think is the secret to getting people to pay attention to what you are trying to say?
Having something meaningful to say that no one's said before, or said in quite the way you're saying it.

Seeing as you used to live in London [Laura did her Masters at London School of Economics], do you have a secret about London that we may not know already? 
I'm sure Londoners know about this already, but whenever I have an American friend who's visiting, I tell them to go to Sir John Soane's Museum near Lincoln's Inn Fields - a preserved house of an odd and lovely man who lived there 100 years ago. It's like walking through someone's amazing, artistic, curious brain, highly recommended.

Thanks Laura! Form Letters: Fill-In-the-Blank Notes to Say Anything to Anyone by Laura Olin is published by Abrams Image. See more Form Letters in issue 32 of Oh Comely