Monday, December 23, 2013

The vision thing

We save lives.
George H.W. Bush was a practical, nuts and bolts kind of guy, I suppose. He was a fighter pilot in World War II, and I'm told that pilots tend to be more mechanics than poets.

So maybe it was unfair that we all jumped on him when he uttered the vision sound bite.
In the January 26, 1987, issue of Time magazine, journalist Robert Ajemian reported that a friend of Bush's had urged him to spend several days at Camp David thinking through his plans for his prospective presidency, to which Bush is said to have responded in exasperation, 'Oh, the vision thing.' This oft-cited quote became a shorthand for the charge that Bush failed to contemplate or articulate important policy positions in a compelling and coherent manner. 
The phrase has since become a metonym for any politician's failure to incorporate a greater vision in a campaign, and has often been applied in the media to other politicians or public figures.
As someone who once led a small group trying to craft a vision statement for a global corporation, I sympathize with the former president. I can't remember what we came up with. I remember at one point I suggested: "Him with the most cookies wins."

I'm pretty sure the CEO took what we crafted and stuck the word profitably in there. He was big on reminding us that we were there to make money. Which, in the end, we didn't do, despite whatever our mission statement was, which is why the company went bankrupt. We didn't have the most cookies.

One day as our little group was hard at work, an executive stuck her head in the door and asked what we were doing. We told her. She said, well, I just bought frames for our current vision statement and they're hanging in every office around the world. If you write a longer statement, it won't fit in the frames.

One wonders how any company can ever make any money.

I did some research on mission statements at the time, and I recall one from a motorcycle helmet company: "We save lives." I recall that this was printed on a giant banner and hung over the assembly floor. I can't find a reference to it today, but I put it forth as an excellent example. It had to have inspired the employees, everyday. It elevated molded plastic to a higher plane.

Looking for it today, I came across a company that makes body armor. Safariland's motto is "Together, we save lives." I don't know to whom together refers; maybe buyer and seller. If they pay me a lot of money, I'll suggest they lose that word; they don't need it.

I think this is probably a pretty cool company. From an editor's point of view, however, I had to read a good way into its history to figure out that it sold body armor and other cool stuff. Okay, only an editor would fuss.

One real good thing: the company has documented 1,800 lives saved by its armor. That's way cool. That evidence is far more eloquent than any amount of cliches blended and extruded into a vision statement.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Hey, look at me!

That would be me.
When I meet people in a professional setting I often feel that there's some kind of disconnect: something's not going right.

I, of course, assume they recognize that I'm the center of the universe. So I'm always disappointed. I think it's true that I learn more about them than they do about me. That's because I'm naturally curious -- you know, why would any self-respecting person be at this event? -- and also because I've learned to inquire about people in my many years as a journalist.

I'd like for them to know that I've been at the writing game as long as I have. Truth is, whatever they do I've probably done. I was at a seminar for job seekers recently, because I wanted to meet the presenter and offer my services to her clients. Her presentation was quite good, but I realized I could have given it. I've changed jobs so often, and worked with clients on their resumes and job searches, and I just know how it works.

Hey, look at me!

When you've been around as long as I have you find yourself working for much younger people. I have clients now who weren't even born when I started writing for a living. Heck, their parents weren't even married. Heck, they're parents were still in high school and picking at pimples.

Hey, read page ten of my resume!

I suddenly understood my predicament when I read an excellent piece by Dorie Clark on her Harvard Business Review blog. So that she won't have to, let me tell you upfront that she is a business strategy consultant, adjunct professor of business administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, and author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future.

She relates her own personal horror stories of being "misunderestimated," as our former president would say. She offers excellent advice on how to prepare before an anticipated meeting with someone and what to do after the initial encounter if the jerk wasn't paying attention.

And now I arrive at my reason for this post. Persuasion is successful when certain conditions are met. The first, according to Aristotle, is the "ethos" of the writer or speaker. This means the communicator's expertise and knowledge, as well as his overall moral character and history. If these are in good standing, the audience is more likely to accept what the writer or speaker says.

I can state with certainty that my wife and our three neurotic cats have no regard for my ethos.

You need to always ask: Does this person or this audience know that I know what I'm talking about? If the answer is no or you're not sure, you have some work to do. Dorie Clark's piece is a good start.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Geese grow on trees

But you knew that.

Actually, people once believed it, but we're so smart today that we don't. Therefore, our minds are open to all sorts of new ideas.


Here's a quick, delightful video about confirmation bias, one of the many reasons it's a miracle that we who write and speak can persuade anyone of anything.

This is a video teaser for David McRaney’s book, You are Now Less Dumb.

Two questions for you:

1) If not geese and trees, what are your audience's embedded beliefs?

2) How will you adjust for that?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

So you want to be a business guru

Didn't make the cut.
The writing team of Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove has surveyed the field and named the 50 most influential business thinkers.

The top 5:
1. Clayton Christensen
2. W. Chan Kim and Renee Maborgne
3. Roger Martin
4. Don Tapscott
5. Vijay Govindarajan
If you're interested in what it takes to join their ranks, here are the criteria given to the various judges in the field of thought leadership:
1. Relevance of ideas
2. Rigor of research
3. Presentation of ideas
4. Accessibility/dissemination of ideas
5. International outlook
6. Originality of ideas
7. Impact of ideas
8. Practicality of ideas
9. Business sense
10. Power to inspire
As a writer, I noticed that the presentation and dissemination of their ideas were high on the list. What else do these leaders have in common?
1. An academic affiliation: Christensen, e.g., is a professor at the Harvard Business School
2. A book: Kim and Maborgne, e.g., wrote Blue Ocean Strategy
3. A memorable concept: for Martin, e.g., it's "integrative thinking"
It's a pretty high bar. Many are called, but few are chosen.

Monday, November 18, 2013

What we can learn from Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway, 1916.
The great novelist, also a writer of nonfiction, began his career as a reporter at the Kansas City Star, where he followed the newspaper's 110 rules for writing.

``Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing,'' Hemingway said in 1940. ``I've never forgotten them. No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides with them.''

Here is a selection of these timeless rules:
Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not

Never use old slang. Such words as stunt, cut out, got his goat, come across, sit up and
take notice, put one over, have no place after their use becomes common. Slang to be
enjoyable must be fresh.

Watch you sequence of tenses. “He said he knew the truth, not “He said he knows the
truth.” “The community was amazed to hear that Charles Wakefield was a thief,” not was
amazed to hear that Charles Wakefield is a thief.”

Eliminate every superfluous word as “Funeral services will be at 2 o’clock Tuesday,” not
“The funeral services will be held at the hour of 2 o’clock on Tuesday.” He said is better
than he said in the course of conversation.

Be careful of the word “only.” “He only had $10,” means he alone was the possessor of
such wealth.” “He had only $10,” means the ten was all the cash he possessed.

Avoid the use of adjectives, especially such extravagant ones as splendid, gorgeous,
grand, magnificent, etc.
Here are several I'm a stickler about:
A long quotation with out introducing the speaker makes a poor lead especially and is
bad at any time. Break into the quotation as soon as you can. thus: “I should prefer,” the
speaker said, “to let the reader know who I am as soon as possible.”

“He saw more than one thousand ducks flying” – not “over one thousand ducks.” Also
say “fewer than” instead of “less than,” when numbers, not quantity, are considered. It is
proper to write “He had more than $10.”
``Hemingway was a big, brutal son-of-a-bitch,'' recalled Emmet Crozier, the playwright who was on The Star's sports staff at the time. Hemingway dogged Moise's steps, listening to his theories about tying paragraphs together so they couldn't be cut; that pure objective writing is the only form of story telling; and lamenting ``the regrettable indication of a great nation's literary taste when it chooses a national anthem beginning with the words, `Oh, say.' ''

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

How to discover a story

There's a human in the data.
Everywhere you turn these days someone is telling you to tell a story. That includes me, sorry.

Let's say you wake up one morning and decide this is the day: you're going to tell the world a story about your company. Your conviction builds as you enter the building. Then your 9 o'clock cancels, so you lock the door, sit at your desk, declare to yourself that this is story time, and you ... sit there.

Ok, here's a way to think about it. I'm indebted to Scott Anthony, managing partner of the consulting firm Innosight, for this, well, insight:
I was working with a team that had been tasked by the company’s CEO to develop a new venture in a promising market space. Its three members had been working for about six weeks. They’d conducted detailed research, talking both to prospective customers and numerous industry experts. And then they used Microsoft’s most popular products to produce what they thought was a business plan. But it actually was a kind of fiction built in three chapters: an Excel spreadsheet with sophisticated analyses showing breathtaking financial potential, a PowerPoint document blending facts and figures with compelling videos and pictures, and a Word document summarizing all of it in prose so lucid Malcolm Gladwell would shed a tear.
So Anthony simply asked: “Who is your first customer?”

They fumbled through their stacks of papers and came up some numbers on a demographic. Nope, he replied.
I asked the question again. Instead of summary facts and figures, I wanted the team to be very precise. What is the customer’s name? Where does he live? What does he look like? What are his hopes, dreams, and aspirations? What does he love? What drives him crazy? How would the team’s idea fit into his life?
Ah. There you go. Statistics aren't a story. A protagonist with a name is moved forward by some aspiration. He encounters mountain peaks: things that drive him crazy. That's a story.

Your cue to look for story is any business plan, customer research, page of numbers, list of bullet points. Look in the abstract generalities of business life for a specific human story.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Thought leadership is like pornography

"Power is like being a lady... if you have to tell people you are, you aren't."
~ Margaret Thatcher

The real thing.
I've been writing and editing this stuff called thought leadership for years, and I'm tired of the term. In conversations with others who do this work, I've learned that they don't much like it, either.

To use the term about oneself seems immodest, even pretentious.

Dr. Liz Alexander, who advises people on the writing of thought leadership books, defines it thusly:
I consider true thought leaders -- not content curators, subject matter experts, or trusted advisors who frequently adopt the label -- as those who disrupt others’ habitual approaches to issues that concern organizations, industries, or society at large.
Thought leadership is like pornography -- I know it when I see it. Ideas are like toilets -- everybody has one. Only a few ideas change minds. It's true that there's nothing new under the sun; Aristotle's Rhetoric is still the bible on persuasion. Nevertheless, times and circumstances today aren't quite what they were yesterday, and, therefore, your thought can sprout in an entirely new petri dish.

That implies that there is some news value in your idea. You can't sit in your tower and suck your thumb. In that context, Alexander describes genuine thought leaders as:
advancing the marketplace of ideas by positing actionable, relevant, research-backed, new points of view.
The big thought leadership firms -- IBM, McKinsey, Booz Allen -- spend a lot of money on original survey research, from which they intuit the lay of the land and the path forward. Your reporting can involve anecdotal insights from your client work, which is just as valid. Whatever, you have to take your thumb out of your mouth and pound the pavement.

And, while we're on terminology, I confess I had to look up content curation. Oh, save me. I've been a content curator all my career! Wow, do I feel special. I may even be a thought leader.

Monday, November 11, 2013

This awful post is an egregious stem-winder

And it will leave you literally nonplussed.

Certain words carry opposite meanings. They're known as autoantonyms, or, sometimes, contronyms or Janus words (after the Roman god).

Life as we know it won't end if you use these words -- context counts -- but if you're a stickler for clarity it's worth learning to recognize them. Anything that requires a reader to stop and do a computation will slow down the transfer of your message.

Novelist Brad Leithauser offers a sampling:
I don’t know how many auto-antonyms English offers, but the list includes “cleave” (unify or sever—the butcher’s wife cleaves to the butcher, who cleaves the cow’s carcass), “overlook” (oversee or fail to notice), “let” (allow or, as in the legal phrase “let or hindrance,” obstruct), “enjoin” (encourage or prohibit), and “sanction,” as in any sanctioned imports are either approved goods or contraband. (There’s a special appealing subclass of auto-antonyms that exists only when spoken, as in raze/raise a building or—if muddily enunciated—prescribed/proscribed drugs.
 They sometimes result from our misuse. Leithauser:
I suspect that “inflammable” will soon go up in smoke. There appears to be growing confusion as to whether the prefix “in” serves as intensifier (highly flammable) or negator (fire resistant). We’re probably only one big lawsuit away from the word’s near-extinction. Picture the poignant plaintiff, about to receive a multimillion-dollar settlement, explaining in broken English that he bought his daughter a blouse made of an inflammable fabric because he wanted to protect her. Picture the clothing manufacturers racing to alter their labeling.
Here from Wikipedia is a another sampling:
  • "All but" can mean "except for" or "almost entirely".
  • "Apparent" can mean "obvious" or "seeming, but in fact not."
  • "Awful" can mean "worthy of awe" or "very bad."
  • "Besides" means "other than; except for; instead of", but can also mean "in addition (to)."
  • "Egregious" can mean "outstandingly bad" or in archaic writing "remarkably good."
  • "Enjoin" can mean "command" and "forbid."
  • "Original" can mean "first" as in "the original painting" or something completely new: "an original work"
  • "Out" can mean "available" as in "the latest model is out" or "unavailable" as in "Sorry, we're out."
  • "To overlook" can mean "to inspect" or "to fail to notice."
It's a funny language.

Norman Cousins: using words

"It makes little difference how many university courses or degrees a person may own. If he cannot use words to move an idea from one point to another, his education is incomplete."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Ben Jonson: language

"Language most shews a man: Speak, that I may see thee."

Three simple steps to business success

Good start.
This is better: Three simple steps to business success without lifting a finger. No: Three simple steps to business success without lifting a foot.

Author Margaret Hefferman, who has been a CEO at five companies, is weary of the glut of business books -- 11,000 a year and counting.
For years now, there has been a marked increase in what I think of as recipe books for managers: A few short steps and you can cook up a stunning success. Such works follow firmly in the footsteps of cooking, diet and fitness books, appearing to offer total transformation in a few quick and easy methods.
We just want it easy, whether it's losing weight or gaining market share. This is the great American tradition that has provided employment for legions of snake oil salesmen and late night TV pitchers.

I'm thinking of writing a book using our drawer of plastic food containers as a metaphor for success in business. Something like: The Errant Lid -- Make the Most of Your Competitive Leftovers. Okay, I'll work on it.

Just because the bookstores are bulging with quick fixes doesn't mean that they work, only that such flimsy remedies play to a fantasy that a quick purchase will cure all ills. We don't need to dumb down our understanding of business and markets; we urgently need to give ourselves time to understand them, to conduct low risk experiments, to reflect on what works and what doesn't. and to take stock of which changes matter and which do not.
 She proposes a daring idea: companies need to actually think.

Perhaps the humorist Ambrose Bierce was holding a business book when he quipped, "The covers of this book are too far apart."

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

12 extremely irritating words and phrases

We slip into cliche because we're basically lazy, I guess. And maybe we think we sound "with it," "with it" being itself a cliche. Whatever the source of our impulse, it's not hard to come up with lists of these things, evidence of the epidemic. Blogger Sharon Greenthal offers this one:
1. It is what it is
2. Man cave
3. Amazing
4. Baby bump
5. Awesome
6. Whatever
7. Literally
8. Think outside the box
9. It’s all good
10. Process
11. Just a thought
12. Virtual
Well, it is what it is. It's all good. Just a thought: if we could literally process our choice of words outside the box, that would be awesome. Whatever.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Show a little respect, would ya?

“Men are respectable only as they respect.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

How do we show respect for our readers and listeners? Here are three suggestions drawn from my years as an editor at The Reader's Digest, which was read by 100 million people around the world.

1) Never talk down. If you do, your reader will sense it, and your chance to persuade will be lost. People may not have your education, skill or experience, but they aren't stupid. Everyone, including yourself, particularly in the United States, is in the process of becoming something better. They think of themselves as what they envision. Speak to them as they intend to be.

A marketing executive at The Digest once told me that the best customer for our magazines and books was someone with three years of college. This person was eager to complete his or her education. So, high school graduate or eager learner?

I was recently at a big teaching hospital for a routine checkup. I was first seen by the "student." I asked him where he was in his training, and he said he had six more months of medical school. I don't know if that means he is called an "intern." Doesn't matter. This was one smart dude. Do you think he would rather be addressed as a student or as a doctor?

2) Be sincere. After the death of DeWitt Wallace, the founder of The Reader's Digest, they found among his papers notes he'd made to himself. Turns out that if he ran an article entitled "Six Secrets to a Happy Marriage," he'd try those secrets out himself. He didn't fill his magazine with untested junk. 

Today this ersatz advice is everywhere. It's called "content." A good bit of it is got up just to fill pages. It reads like it. It's quite disrespectful of the reader, and the reader knows it at some level. Are you slinging business "content" or offering genuine, helpful ideas?

3) Make it easy. The Reader's Digest was created at a time when writers were paid by the word. More words meant more money. RD made even more money by getting rid of those needless words. At the same time, its editors cleaned up the grammar -- made the passive voice active, and the like -- thus adding to the readability of its articles.

It will take you longer to write succinctly and clearly. But you will be saving the reader time, and you will be making it more likely that he or she will be able to comprehend your brilliance. You will show respect for the reader if you do, and the reader will return it. 

All of this is pretty much what your mother taught you.

I was looking for some inspiration on this topic in Aristotle's Rhetoric, of all things, and ultimately found the following quote among his writings elsewhere. If I'd found it first, I might have avoided writing this post.

“Excellence is never an accident," Aristotle wrote. "It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives -- choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”

Friday, November 1, 2013

One space or two?

I was taught in typing class way back when to hit the spacebar twice after a period at the end of a sentence. For decades I did that. I was a zealot for double spaces.

Then I was told that computerized typography adjusts for the end of a sentence and I no longer needed to. Now I'm a zealot for single spaces. Nothing makes me crazier than coming across my own earlier work with double spaces. I get all OCD and want to change every one.

So what should you do?

Wikipedia notes the controversy, and concludes:
Many experts now say that additional space is not required or desirable between sentences. Typesetting programs such as TeX can modify kerning values to adjust spaces following terminal punctuation, so there is less need to increase spacing manually between sentences (provided that there is some cue to distinguish the end of a sentence from the end of an abbreviated word). From around 1950, single sentence spacing became standard in books, magazines and newspapers.
So Wikipedia sides with me. Let's check in with the authoritative Chicago Manual of Style. Answering a question online, one of its editors asserts:
The view at CMOS is that there is no reason for two spaces after a period in published work. Some people, however—my colleagues included—prefer it, relegating this preference to their personal correspondence and notes. I’ve noticed in old American books printed in the few decades before and after the turn of the last century (ca. 1870–1930 at least) that there seemed to be a trend in publishing to use extra space (sometimes quite a bit of it) after periods. And many people were taught to use that extra space in typing class (I was). 
But introducing two spaces after the period causes problems: (1) it is inefficient, requiring an extra keystroke for every sentence; (2) even if a program is set to automatically put an extra space after a period, such automation is never foolproof; (3) there is no proof that an extra space actually improves readability—as your comment suggests, it’s probably just a matter of familiarity (Who knows? perhaps it’s actually more efficient to read with less regard for sentences as individual units of thought—many centuries ago, for example in ancient Greece, there were no spaces even between words, and no punctuation); (4) two spaces are harder to control for than one in electronic documents (I find that the earmark of a document that imposes a two-space rule is a smattering of instances of both three spaces and one space after a period, and two spaces in the middle of sentences); and (5) two spaces can cause problems with line breaks in certain programs.
So there you are: the ancient Greeks are on my side. And they were some pretty smart dudes. Even their little children with cute garlands on their heads playing video games in the Parthenon spoke Greek fluently.

How we do it today


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

10 foreign words we could us in English

1. Kummerspeck (German)
Excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally, grief bacon.

2. Shemomedjamo (Georgian)
You know when you’re really full, but your meal is just so delicious, you can’t stop eating it? The Georgians feel your pain. This word means, “I accidentally ate the whole thing."

3. Tartle (Scots)
The nearly onomatopoeic word for that panicky hesitation just before you have to introduce someone whose name you can't quite remember.

4. Mamihlapinatapai (Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego)
This word captures that special look shared between two people, when both are wishing that the other would do something that they both want, but neither want to do.

5. Backpfeifengesicht (German)
A face badly in need of a fist.

6. Iktsuarpok (Inuit)
You know that feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’re there yet? This is the word for it.

7. Pelinti (Buli, Ghana)
Your friend bites into a piece of piping hot pizza, then opens his mouth and sort of tilts his head around while making an “aaaarrrahh” noise. The Ghanaians have a word for that. More specifically, it means “to move hot food around in your mouth.”

8. Greng-jai (Thai)
That feeling you get when you don't want someone to do something for you because it would be a pain for them.

9. Mencolek (Indonesian)
You know that old trick where you tap someone lightly on the opposite shoulder from behind to fool them? The Indonesians have a word for it.

10. Faamiti (Samoan)
To make a squeaking sound by sucking air past the lips in order to gain the attention of a dog or child.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

If you can't write, pick up the phone

Galbraith: Pick up the phone.
Here's a tactic that will get you going if you're in a rut and at the same time make your writing stronger.

Pick up the phone.

As a business writer at The Associated Press back in the Dark Ages, I found myself working on a series of articles about coffee prices with a fellow reporter who came up to New York from Washington, where he covered the CIA and other spooky things.

We were going to prove that there was a conspiracy to raise coffee prices. After several weeks of tramping around odd parts of Manhattan chasing down coffee brewers, who wouldn't tell us anything, my colleague allowed as how covering the top-secret CIA was a lot easier.

I digress. I was sitting at my typewriter one morning (I told you it was the Dark Ages) stuck on what to type next. My editor wandered by, took one glance, sized me up, and scolded, "You just can't pick up the phone, can you?"

His point: if you don't know where to go next, get some more information. If you can't write, report.

You can't write your way around a problem. You have to read more or ask someone to get around it. The payoff is that the more facts and data you get, the better your insight into the topic and the more precise and concrete your writing. Specific is always better than general. Real is better than theoretical.

I was reminded of this when I came across an article written in 1978 -- about the same time I discovered that coffee prices go up because of market forces, duh -- by the economist  John Kenneth Galbraith. He had been asked to teach college students about writing, and he was pondering what he might say.

Here's his version of "pick up the phone":
George Bernard Shaw once said that as he grew older, he became less and less interested in theory, more and more interested in information. The temptation in writing is just the reverse. Nothing is so hard to come by as a new and interesting fact. Nothing is so easy on the feet as a generalization. I now pick up magazines and leaf through them looking for articles that are rich with facts; I do not care much what they are. Richly evocative and deeply percipient theory I avoid. It leaves me cold unless I am the author of it. My advice to all young writers is to stick to research and reporting with only a minimum of interpretation. And especially this is my advice to all older writers, particularly to columnists. As the feet give out, they seek to have the mind take their place.
It's good advice for young and old.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Grammar up with which I will not put!

What's with the hair, dude?
A snobbish English teacher was sitting in an Atlanta airport coffee shop waiting for her flight back to Connecticut, when a friendly Southern belle sat down next to her.

"Where y’all goin’ to?" asked the Southern belle.

Turning her nose in the air, the snob replied, "I don’t answer people who end their sentences with prepositions."

The Southern belle thought a moment, and tried again.

"Where y’all goin’ to, bitch?"

That one is from a blog post at the Oxford Dictionaries. If you want a good lesson on prepositions, that post by Catherine Soanes is your go to post.

For the rest of us, here's a distillation regarding ending a sentence with them.
The word ‘preposition’ ultimately derives from Latin prae ‘before’ and ponere ’to place’. In Latin grammar, the rule is that a preposition should always precede the prepositional object that it is linked with: it is never placed after it. According to a number of other authorities, it was the dramatist John Dryden in 1672 who was the first person to criticize a piece of English writing (by Ben Jonson) for placing a preposition at the end of a clause instead of before the noun or pronoun to which it was linked. 
This prohibition was taken up by grammarians and teachers in the next two centuries and became very tenacious. English is not Latin, however, and contemporary authorities do not try to shoehorn it into the Latin model. Nevertheless, many people are still taught that ending a sentence or clause with a preposition should be avoided.
I'd like to point out that both John Dryden and Ben Jonson are dead. Reason enough to avoid fighting over grammar.

Friday, October 18, 2013

To write well, daydream well

Jessica Lahey, an author and former teacher, writes in The Atlantic about the lost art of daydreaming and its value for our children.

She quotes psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman:
The rewards include self- awareness, creative incubation, improvisation and evaluation, memory consolidation, autobiographical planning, goal driven thought, future planning, retrieval of deeply personal memories, reflective consideration of the meaning of events and experiences, simulating the perspective of another person, evaluating the implications of self and others’ emotional reactions, moral reasoning, and reflective compassion.
If it's good for children, why isn't it good for adults? Well, it is.

On a 30-minute walk on my road in the evening I often create an entire 750-word column in my mind. It needs a bit of sharpening, of course, but it's there. It springs forth seemingly out of nowhere. I've always marveled at this, but it should be no surprise. A mind at rest from the daily toil is free to play.

Sigmund Freud makes the connection for us:
Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or, rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him? The creative writer does the same as the child at play. He creates a world of phantasy which he takes very seriously — that is, which he invests with large amounts of emotion — while separating it sharply from reality.
Of course, you might want to first close your office door.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

How to begin, and end, a speech

Stop here.
Think of your talk as a story that will take your listeners from one place to another, from where they are now in relation to your topic to where you want them to be.

Every story has a beginning and end, and the storyteller gets to choose them. There's more to that than you think. When I was a magazine editor we let our writers just type away and have a good time. When they turned in the manuscript, we would have to find the true beginning. Usually the writer had to get a lot off his chest before getting to the real story.

I once worked in the New Orleans bureau of The Associated Press. The joke there was that when we were picking up a local newspaper story for distribution on our wires, we'd immediately go the seventh graf to find the real lead.

So don't assume that, for instance, your personal story begins when you were born. Of course it does, but not when you're telling someone else. It must begin at a point that will immediately engage your audience. Your story will end when you die, but that's for you and not your audience, so you also have to decide where to stop.

Chris Anderson, a former journalist, is the curator of the TED Conference, which features the world's most important speakers. Anderson advises this:
If you frame the talk as a journey, the biggest decisions are figuring out where to start and where to end. To find the right place to start, consider what people in the audience already know about your subject—and how much they care about it. If you assume they have more knowledge or interest than they do, or if you start using jargon or get too technical, you’ll lose them. The most engaging speakers do a superb job of very quickly introducing the topic, explaining why they care so deeply about it, and convincing the audience members that they should, too.
Many of the best talks have a narrative structure that loosely follows a detective story. The speaker starts out by presenting a problem and then describes the search for a solution. There’s an “aha” moment, and the audience’s perspective shifts in a meaningful way. 
If a talk fails, it’s almost always because the speaker didn’t frame it correctly, misjudged the audience’s level of interest, or neglected to tell a story. Even if the topic is important, random pontification without narrative is always deeply unsatisfying. There’s no progression, and you don’t feel that you’re learning.
Ah, the aha! moment. That's where you pause for effect and end it. Why step on the punch line? You're done your job. Get outta Dodge.

From Wikipedia: The Eureka effect, also known as the aha! effect, refers to the common human experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept. Unfortunately, the writer of the Wikipedia entry says that, "It is difficult to predict under what circumstances one can predict an Aha! moment."

You could study your audience's faces, I suppose. You might learn over time as you hone your presentation. Often a powerful anecdote illustrating your thesis can be used to generate the epiphany you desire. Achieving this, of course, forces you to understand the one thing you want to convey in your speech. Knowing that will help you know where to start and where to end.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Actually, you really don't need adverbs. Really.

Just say no.
In all matters language I defer to my patron saint, Mark Twain, and on adverbs his pronouncement is:
"I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference. Yes, there are things which we cannot learn, and there is no use in fretting about it. I cannot learn adverbs; and what is more I won't."
Stephen King is a good writer, and in his opinion:
"I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it's--GASP!!--too late."
So there.

I recently came across Pat Holt's blog. She's a longtime book editor. Adverbs are on her list of ten mistakes.
Actually, totally, absolutely, completely, continually, constantly, continuously, literally, really, unfortunately, ironically, incredibly, hopefully, finally – these and others are words that promise emphasis, but too often they do the reverse. They suck the meaning out of every sentence. 
I defer to People Magazine for larding its articles with empty adverbs. A recent issue refers to an “incredibly popular, groundbreakingly racy sitcom.” That’s tough to say even when your lips aren’t moving. 
In Still Life with Crows, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child describe a mysterious row of corn in the middle of a field: “It was, in fact, the only row that actually opened onto the creek.” Here are two attempts at emphasis (“in fact,” “actually”), but they just junk up the sentence. Remove them both and the word “only” carries the burden of the sentence with efficiency and precision. 
(When in doubt, try this mantra: Precise and spare; precise and spare; precise and spare.)
In dialogue, empty adverbs may sound appropriate, even authentic, but that’s because they’ve crept into American conversation in a trendy way. If you’re not watchful, they’ll make your characters sound wordy, infantile and dated. 
In Julia Glass’s Three Junes, a character named Stavros is a forthright and matter-of-fact guy who talks to his lover without pretense or affectation. But when he mentions an offbeat tourist souvenir, he says, “It’s absolutely wild. I love it.” Now he sounds fey, spoiled, superficial.. (Granted, “wild” nearly does him in; but “absolutely” is the killer.)
The word “actually” seems to emerge most frequently, I find. 
Ann Packer’s narrator recalls running in the rain with her boyfriend, “his hand clasping mine as if he could actually make me go fast.” Delete “actually” and the sentence is more powerful without it. 
The same holds true when the protagonist named Miles hears some information inEmpire Falls by Richard Russo. “Actually, Miles had no doubt of it,” we’re told. Well, if he had no doubt, remove “actually” – it’s cleaner, clearer that way. “Actually” mushes up sentence after sentence; it gets in the way every time. I now think it should *never* be used. 
Another problem with empty adverbs: You can’t just stick them at the beginning of a sentence to introduce a general idea or wishful thinking, as in “Hopefully, the clock will run out.” Adverbs have to modify a verb or other adverb, and in this sentence, “run out” ain’t it. 
Look at this hilarious clunker from The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown: “Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino.” 
Ack, “almost inconceivably” – that’s like being a little bit infertile! Hopefully, that “enormous albino” will ironically go back to actually flogging himself while incredibly saying his prayers continually.
Hopefully, you'll constantly remember this.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Keep your eye on "I"

I once had a job counselor tell me that in cover letters to a potential employer I should never use the word "I."

I suppose the idea is that the letter should be about the company, not about me. I've found that advice impossible to follow, but maybe I just don't get it.

You may have noticed that I have already used "I" six times. I told you it's not easy. There, I did it again.

Now from the University of Texas comes research about this. People will research just about anything, no?

Well, this work will give you some insight into yourself and others when you're trying to communicate. It should inform the way you write and speak. Keep it in mind, for example, the next time you compose an email.

The research suggests that people who often say "I" are less powerful and less sure of themselves than those who limit their use of the word. Frequent "I" users subconsciously believe they are subordinate to the person to whom they are talking.

Oh boy.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Bernstein quotes Dr. James W. Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department.
Pronouns signal where someone's internal focus is pointing, he says. Often, people using "I" are being self-reflective. But they may also be self-conscious or insecure, in physical or emotional pain, or simply trying to please. In five experiments people deemed to have higher status used "I" less.
"There is a misconception that people who are confident, have power, have high-status tend to use 'I' more than people who are low status," he says. "That is completely wrong. The high-status person is looking out at the world and the low-status person is looking at himself."
People curb their use of "I" subconsciously, Pennebaker says. "If I am the high-status person, I am thinking of what you need to do. If I am the low-status person, I am more humble and am thinking, 'I should be doing this.' "
Pennebaker has found heavy "I" users across many people: Women (who are typically more reflective than men), people who are more at ease with personal topics, younger people, caring people as well as anxious and depressed people. (Surprisingly, he says, narcissists do not use "I" more than others, according to a meta-analysis of a large number of studies.)
All his leads Pennebaker to conclude: "You should use 'I' the same way you use a speedometer on your car -- as feedback on yourself. Are you being genuine? Are you being honest? Learn to adjust some, to know yourself."

I get it.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Keeping a diary can improve your performance

Diary of the Wright Brothers' father.
If you're like me, your first thought is: exactly when am I supposed to write in a diary? 1:30 - 2:00 a.m.?

Plenty of smart, exceptional people have kept diaries, and they must know something. What's interesting about the lists of famous diarists, however, is that they all seem to have been of previous generations.

Is there something about our 24/7 information barrage and never-ending connectivity with the office and everyone else -- and, of course, television -- that robs us of quiet time for reflection?

Today you can keep a diary on your computer, of course, using any number of specialized programs. And you can split hairs and decide to keep a journal,  not a diary. There's a distinction.

Let's assume you've found a few minutes between your conference call with India and your handball game. Why do it?

Teresa Amabile, a business professor at Harvard, and psychologist Steven Kramer have come up with a few reasons: (1) focus, (2) patience, (3) planning, and (4) personal growth.

Citing their research into the journals of more than two hundred creative professionals, they point to a pattern that reveals the single most important motivator: palpable progress on meaningful work:
On the days when these professionals saw themselves moving forward on something they cared about — even if the progress was a seemingly incremental “small win” — they were more likely to be happy and deeply engaged in their work. And, being happier and more deeply engaged, they were more likely to come up with new ideas and solve problems creatively.

Although the act of reflecting and writing, in itself, can be beneficial, you’ll multiply the power of your diary if you review it regularly — if you listen to what your life has been telling you. Periodically, maybe once a month, set aside time to get comfortable and read back through your entries. And, on New Year’s Day, make an annual ritual of reading through the previous year.
Perhaps I should set the alarm for 1:30 a.m.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The original Mad Man's rules for writing

David Ogilvy, an advertising executive who died in 1999, has been called "the father of advertising" and "the most sought-after wizard in today's advertising industry."

He worked at a time when good writing was valued -- demanded, in fact. Here are his rules for it, taken from an internal memo to all employees of Ogilvy & Mather:
People who think well, write well. Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches. Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well. Here are 10 hints:
  1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.
  2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.
  3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
  4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.
  5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.
  6. Check your quotations.
  7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.
  8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.
  9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.
  10. If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.
Oh dear. I may have inadvertently let some new cliches loose on the blogosphere.

Friday, October 4, 2013

How "different from" is different from "different than"

Different from New York.
I suppose it's a rather minor matter in the world of writing. Whether to use "different from" or "different than" is different from more serious issues, such as getting your subject to agree with you verb.

However, to people who do this stuff for a living it does matter. You can find a lively discussion in a Linked In group called LinkEds & Writers. It's not for the faint of heart, and you may well have to join the group to see what editorial sausage making looks like, which is a blessing.

I googled around and found an explanation I like at a University of Houston - Victoria website. Here's the thing: you're not going to jail if you don't follow the rules here. But it's good to know. You can, for instance, amaze a total stranger at a cocktail party with your newfound knowledge.

David Felts writes:

What is the difference?
In the 18th century, different than began to be seen as unacceptable in certain situations. This view has survived for the most part. Many grammar books, such as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, argue against using different than. Different from is preferred and considered correct, but different than is considered acceptable on some occasions.

When to use different from
Use different from for simple comparisons, as in comparing two persons or things.
Ex.: My car is different from (not than) her car.
Ex.: The book I bought is different from the one sold in the bookstore.
It is important to remember that when using different from, the two things being compared (e.g. my car and her car in the first example) should have the same grammatical structure. This is called parallel construction. Here are a couple of examples:
Ex.: People in the field of literature write differently from people in the field of business.
Ex.: People in the field of literature write differently from those in the field of business.
When different than is acceptable
Because of increased use, different than is sometimes considered acceptable in American English. When in doubt, just use different from, as it is preferred by most people. According to the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel (1992), different than is acceptable only if the words following different than make up a clause—especially if the clause is elliptical (referring to an aforementioned context without restating it). Here’s an example:
Ex.: It seems so different than Paris.
In this example, if different from were used, Paris, the city, would be the object of comparison. Using different than creates a subtle distinction in meaning. Since different than is used, the clause following different than is interpreted as elliptical and suggests “the way things were in Paris” or "than Paris was" or “what happened in Paris.” If you have doubt when to use different than, you might just use different from following the parallel construction rule.

So there you are. Thanks, David. I wonder if he's ever been to Paris. I haven't.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Keep sentences short, stupid

Try this sentence on for size:
The paradigmatic change from the fully controllable, powerful point sources in the classical power grid to the distributed area sources of alternative energy sources – such as wind and solar – calls for new qualities in the system-wide aggregation and processing of basic data.
Yeah, me too. Now look at it edited:
Adding new sources of energy such as wind and solar to existing power grids will require better data processing to manage them. 
That example from Tim Parker of The Bloom Group illustrates one of the best ways to make your writing more powerful: keep you sentence length under control. Give the reader a chance to breathe.

"For readability," Parker says, "the optimum sentence length is somewhere in the range 15 to 25 words. But if you go to most professional firms’ sites, you’ll more likely find an average length of at least 30 words, with 50 to 75 word sentences not uncommon."

Long sentences create several problems for you, too.
  • They require you as the writer to make a number of ideas work together.
  • They require you to shuffle more words into some logical order.
So you're doing yourself a favor, as well as the reader, when you keep them short.

N. Watson Solomon, a readability expert, quotes a number of experts here. One notes that:
Based on several studies, press associations in the USA have laid down a readability table. Their survey shows readers find sentences of 8 words or less very easy to read; 11 words, easy; 14 words fairly easy; 17 words standard; 21 words fairly difficult; 25 words difficult and 29 words or more, very difficult.
Over the whole document, make the average sentence length 15-20 words. More people fear snakes than full stops, so they recoil when a long sentence comes hissing across the page.
Perhaps you should become the Sentence Length Cop in your office. Suddenly everything might become clear, the operation might run more efficiently, and you might be able to leave for home on time.

Addendum: I ran this post through a readability checker. Here's what it told me:

No. of sentences19
No. of words346
No. of complex words31
Percent of complex words8.96%
Average words per sentence18.21
Average syllables per word1.39

That translates into a grade level of about 9, meaning it should be easily understood by 14 to 15 year olds.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Before you write, listen to these professors

Harvard economics professors Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz offer advice to students on writing. Their guidelines apply to anyone in business.

Rule #1: You will probably not have a Nobel Prize winning idea.
Theorem #1: It is always possible to transform a good idea into a great paper and a superb
Theorem #2: Even if your idea is Nobel-worthy, you can always make it into a poorly written paper and a lousy presentation. This theorem will probably never be needed; see Rule #1.
Rule #2: The insights of your paper will first be judged by how you present them. If your paper is written in an unprofessional manner, your empirical work, mathematical proofs, and models will be viewed with initial skepticism.

Rule #3: Your paper is an exercise in persuasion. Your readers are your audience. They have better things to do than read your paper. Make them interested in your thesis and convinced of your argument. 

Rule #4: No great paper—no matter how well constructed, brilliant, and well written—first emerged from the author’s printer in that form. It was rewritten at least 10 times. Rewriting is the true art of writing. 

Rule #5: No author—no matter how careful and humble—can see all (or even most) of his or her writing errors. Trade papers with another student. Be tough; there will be some initial pain, but gratitude will follow. 

Rule #6: Most paragraphs have too many sentences and most sentences have too many words. Repetition is boring. We repeat: repetition is boring. Cut, cut, and then cut again.

Rule #7: Verbalizing your argument is more difficult than writing it. Giving a presentation will reveal where your argument falls flat and will show you how to redraft the paper. Give many presentations before sending out your paper. Give them to a workshop, friends, a dog or cat, even the wall. The presentation will force you to confront inconsistencies in your argument.

How to write good

Familiar, but always amusing and helpful, advice from Frank L. Visco in Writer's Digest:
  1. Avoid Alliteration. Always.
  2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
  3. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They're old hat.)
  4. Employ the vernacular.
  5. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
  6. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
  7. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
  8. Contractions aren't necessary.
  9. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
  10. One should never generalize.
  11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."
  12. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
  13. Don't be redundant; don't use more words than necessary; it's highly superfluous.
  14. Profanity sucks.
  15. Be more or less specific.
  16. Understatement is always best.
  17. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
  18. One word sentences? Eliminate.
  19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
  20. The passive voice is to be avoided.
  21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
  22. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
  23. Who needs rhetorical questions?

Very good advice

"Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."

~ Mark Twain

Monday, September 30, 2013

Why writing well is important

“Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard."
~ David McCullough

Good writing accomplishes two things. It helps you sort through your thoughts. And it helps someone else understand them.

We think in two different ways. The psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes them this way:
  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious
  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious
All those brilliant thoughts in your head are bubbling up in System 1. They're beautiful, but they're disorganized and chaotic. If you want them to do some actually work -- persuade someone to do something, for example -- you will need to express them somehow, and that means System 2.

Oh boy. When you start to put those incredible ideas down on paper they turn to mush! What sounded so good in your head doesn't do so well when forced into symbols (letters and words) laid out linearly according to strict rules (grammar). It's just not the same idea.

I have often "written" an entire 750-word column in my head as I walked out on my road in the evening. Back at my computer, as I'm frantically putting it down, I'm perplexed as I see it coming out differently. 

Now if I put it down in accordance with the rules of the written word -- the customs we've all sort of agreed on over time -- then you will have a better chance of understanding what I want to say. I have to put it in those symbols to get it from my head to yours.

I'm looking for a metaphor. Let's suppose you turn 22 guys loose out on a field and give them a ball and tell them to have at it. Fun, right? Now, divide them into two teams, put some refs out there, and create a whole gaggle of rules. It becomes an entirely different game. And now we can follow along (and yell at the TV).

If you don't follow the rules, they other guy won't know what you're trying to say. You will get penalized and lose the game. (The Jets proved this yesterday.)

"Good writing skills are an indicator of an organized mind which is capable of arranging information and argument in a systematic fashion and also helping (not making) other people understand things," the computer scientist Dustin Mitchell writes.

Anton Chekhov: where writers do their lying

"My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying."

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

John Steinbeck's rules for writing

These come from an interview he gave to The Paris Review in 1975.
  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
These apply as much to an executive struggling with a non-fiction book as to a novelist. Writing is simply putting words on paper. Rewriting -- well, there's where the work comes in.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Use a story to get past their biases

Confirmation bias refers to the tendency of your readers or listeners to accept only what they already believe. It could explain why your well-crafted papers, memos and speeches get nowhere. I've written about it here and here.

This cognitive bias would seem to be an impenetrable barrier, but there is a way through it: the old-fashioned story.

Steve Denning, a knowledge management and organizational storytelling consultant, has looked into this. “Analysis might excite the mind," he writes, "but it hardly offers a route to the heart.And that’s where you must go if you are to motivate people not only to take action but to do so with energy and enthusiasm.”

Here's an example from his own experience, as related by Cynthia Phoel:
As a program director at The World Bank in the mid-1990s Denning was at a loss for how to convince his colleagues of the value of knowledge management. Presentations built on solid research and carefully constructed PowerPoint slides got him nowhere. Then he started telling this simple story:
In June of last year, a health worker in a tiny town in Zambia went to the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and got an answer to a question about the treatment of malaria. Remember that this was in Zambia, one of the poorest countries in the world, and it was in a tiny place six hundred kilometers from the capitol city. But the most striking thing about this picture, at least for us, is that the World Bank isn’t in it. Despite our know-how on all kinds of poverty-related issues, that knowledge isn’t available to the millions of people who could use it. Imagine if it were. Think what an organization we could become.
This narrative succeeded in persuading Denning’s listeners to envision a broader, more ambitious future for the organization. It succeeded where analysis and argument had failed.
Business isn't as rational as we pretend. But you knew that.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Why we do our best thinking in the shower

Thinks too much.
It's said that Woody Allen will jump in the shower when he needs a mental boost -- several times a day if necessary.

And there's the all-star baseball player David Ortiz: "Even when I'm taking a shower, I work on my swing."

The shower creates the perfect conditions for a creative flash, coaxing out your inner genius, Lucas Reilly writes:

Research shows you’re more likely to have a creative epiphany when you’re doing something monotonous, like fishing, exercising, or showering. Since these routines don’t require much thought, you flip to autopilot. This frees up your unconscious to work on something else. Your mind goes wandering, leaving your brain to quietly play a no-holds-barred game of free association.

This kind of daydreaming relaxes the prefrontal cortex—the brain’s command center for decisions, goals, and behavior. It also switches on the rest of your brain’s “default mode network” (DMN) clearing the pathways that connect different regions of your noggin. With your cortex loosened up and your DMN switched on, you can make new, creative connections that your conscious mind would have dismissed.

Strange as it sounds, your brain is not most active when you’re focused on a task. Rather, research shows it’s more active when you let go of the leash and allow it to wander. Shelley Carson at Harvard found that highly creative people share one amazing trait—they’re easily distracted. And that’s the beauty of a warm shower. It distracts you. It makes you defocus. It lets your brain roam. It activates your DMN and encourages wacky ideas to bounce around.
A a shower is relaxing. It’s a small, safe, enclosed space. You feel comfortable there. On top of that, you’re probably alone. It may be the only alone time you get all day. It’s your chance to get away from any stresses outside.

When you’re that relaxed, your brain may release everyone’s favorite happy-go-lucky neurotransmitter, dopamine. A flush of dopamine can boost your creative juices. More alpha waves will also ripple through your brain—the same waves that appear when you’re meditating or happily spacing out. Alphas accompany your brain’s daydreamy default setting and may encourage the creative fireworks.

The time you shower also plays into the equation. Most of us wash up either in the morning or at night—when we’re most tired. That’s our creative peak. The groggy morning fog weakens your brain’s censors, keeping you from blocking the irrelevant, distracting thoughts that make great ideas possible. It’s likely that your shower gushes during your creative sweet spot.

Bertrand Russell's rules for writing

Bertrand Russell.
Bertrand Russell was a British philosopher and prolific author. In his suggestions for writing well he offers advice on jargon:

First: never use a long word if a short word will do. 

Second: if you want to make a statement with a great many qualifications, put some of the qualifications in separate sentences. 

Third: do not let the beginning of your sentence lead the reader to an expectation which is contradicted by the end. 
Take, say, such a sentence as the following, which might occur in a work on sociology: ‘Human beings are completely exempt from undesirable behaviour-patterns only when certain prerequisites, not satisfied except in a small percentage of actual cases, have, through some fortuitous concourse of favourable circumstances, whether congenital or environmental, chanced to combine in producing an individual in whom many factors deviate from the norm in a socially advantageous manner.’ 
Let us see if we can translate this sentence into English. I suggest the following: ‘All men are scoundrels, or at any rate almost all. The men who are not must have had unusual luck, both in their birth and in their upbringing.’ This is shorter and more intelligible, and says just the same thing. But I am afraid any professor who used the second sentence instead of the first would get the sack.
"This suggests a word of advice to such of my hearers as may happen to be professors," Russell writes. 
I am allowed to use plain English because everybody knows that I could use mathematical logic if I chose. Take the statement: ‘Some people marry their deceased wives’ sisters.’ I can express this in language which only becomes intelligible after years of study, and this gives me freedom. I suggest to young professors that their first work should be written in a jargon only to be understood by the erudite few. With that behind them, they can ever after say what they have to say in a language ‘understanded of the people’. In these days, when our very lives are at the mercy of the professors, I cannot but think that they would deserve our gratitude if they adopted my advice.
If professors can learn to write without jargon, why can't writers of business prose?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Are you reading this on your phone?

Your audience is increasingly going mobile.

new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project finds that nearly two-thirds (63%) of cell phone owners now use their phone to go online. Because 91% of all Americans now own a cell phone, this means that 57% of all American adults are cell internet users. The proportion of cell owners who use their phone to go online has doubled since 2009.
Additionally, one third of these cell internet users (34%) mostly use their phone to access the internet, as opposed to other devices like a desktop, laptop, or tablet computer. They account for 21% of the total cell owner population. Young adults, non-whites, and those with relatively low income and education levels are particularly likely to be cell-mostly internet users.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Constructing thought leadership programs

Architectural and design firms are getting into the thought leadership business.

A survey of 144 architectural, engineering and construction firms worldwide found that  55 percent have some sort of a thought leadership, research or innovation program. More than half of these programs were started in the past five years.

Although it was not part of the survey, the matter of the slow economy came up in later interviews, suggesting that firms in this industry are using thought leadership is a means to survive the bad times. And it seems to be working. Amanda Walter writes:
More than 65 percent of firms with these programs can make a direct or indirect correlation between the thought leadership program and new work. Although not every firm can point to a specific example, Sera Architects in Portland actually received a cold call from Google telling them that they’d been watching their sustainability presentations for years and invited them to respond to an RFP.
Another interesting finding is that the companies in the survey are taking to new media more than old in their efforts.
With 63 percent of respondents communicating their efforts through social media and more than half of them sharing their content through blogs, this subset of firms seem to be adapting to the shift toward communicating in the new media at a faster rate than the industry as a whole. (According to the research in the 2012 book Social Media in Action: Comprehensive Guide for Architecture, Engineering and Environmental Consulting Firms, only 16 percent of firms reported that they were blogging.)
Here's a picture of the communications channels of those in the survey:

Friday, September 13, 2013

The power of a short sentence

Shorter is always better. But shorter is even better in the company of longer.

“If you ever have a preposterous statement to make … say it in five words or less, because we’re always used to five-word sentences as being the gospel truth.” ~ Thomas Wolfe

Roy Peter Clark, who teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, uses that statement as a springboard for discussion of short sentences. They are powerful indeed.
Using short sentences to their full effect is a centuries-old strategy, found in opinion writing, fiction and nonfiction, poetry and plays. It works in a formal speech or in a handwritten letter. Shakespeare had a messenger deliver the news to Macbeth in six words: “The Queen, my lord, is dead,” a message that could fit easily inside a 140-character tweet.
A familiar and effective place for the short sentence is at the end of a long paragraph. 
Clark shows this at work in a newspaper story. The writer described the life and influential tenure in a Tampa zoo of a chimpanzee named Herman.
“Altogether, he lived at Lowry Park Zoo for 35 years. He lasted there longer than any other creature and longer than any of the humans. Each of the 1,800 animals at the zoo is assigned a number. His was 00001.”
Placed in a short sentence at the end of a paragraph that telling detail assumes even more significance.

"What makes a short sentence short is determined by the sentences around it," Clark writes. "In the land of 40-word sentences, the 20-word sentence bears a special power."