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."

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Now you tell me

Fill everything up.
On average, companies with short, simple names attract more shareholders, generate greater amounts of stock trading, and perform better on certain financial measures than companies with hard-to-process names, say T. Clifton Green of Emory University and Russell E. Jame of the University of Kentucky.
Bad choices: National Oilwell Varco and Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold. 
A 1-step increase in name "fluency" on a 5-step scale, such as reducing name length by 1 word, is associated with a 2.53% increase in market-to-book ratio, which would translate to $3.75 million in added market value for the median-size firm. 
Selecting an easy-to-process company name is a low-cost method for improving investor recognition and increasing firm value, the authors say.

Fewer words are better in any setting.

For example, if you need venture capital:
To maximize the chances of raising venture capital, company names that are six to ten characters in length see the most deals. This is pretty expected. In particular, companies whose names are seven characters in length saw the most financings and actually saw higher median deal values than their brethren with six, eight, nine and ten characters in their name. So when in doubt, go for 7 characters in your name.
Good luck.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The trickiest language

We'll begin with box, and the plural is boxes, 
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes. 
Then one fowl is goose, but two are called geese, 
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese. 
You may find a lone mouse or a whole lot of mice, 
But the plural of house is houses, not hice. 
If the plural of man is always called men, 
Why shouldn't the plural of pan be pen? 
The cow in the plural may be cows or kine, 
But the plural of vow is vows, not vine. 
And I speak of a foot, and you show me your feet, 
But I give a boot... would a pair be beet?
If one is a tooth, and a whole set is teeth,
Why shouldn't the plural of booth be beeth?
If the singular is this, and the plural is these,
Why shouldn't the plural of kiss be kese?
Then one may be that, and three be those,
Yet the plural of hat would never be hose.
We speak of a brother, and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.
The masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine she, shis, and shim.
So our English, I think you will agree,
Is the trickiest language you ever did see.

(Thanks, Thomas)

What's going on in the brains of your audience

Gentlemen, start your PowerPoints.
Not a whole lot.

They're looking at you or your words, and you've assembled some dazzling arguments for your position, but when you've had your say you're worse off than before.

That's because confirmation bias is firmly in control. Researchers who have studied this know that we don't let mere arguments or evidence upset our deeply held beliefs. In fact, arguments to the contrary tend to make our beliefs stronger.

People are funny.

Is your audience even thinking? Apparently not, Steve Denning writes. He's an author, consultant and knowledge management guru. He refers to a study at Emory University:
Drew Westen and his team at Emory University conducted Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) brain scans on fifteen "strong Republicans" and fifteen "strong Democrats" in the course of the 2004 presidential campaign while they were reviewing blatantly self-contradictory statements by the two candidates, George W. Bush and John Kerry. As we would expect from earlier studies of the confirmation bias, the Democrats found ways to reconcile Kerry’s inconsistencies and became even more strongly Democrat, while the Republicans had no difficulty explaining away George W. Bush’s self-contradictions so as to become even more fervently Republican.
But the fRMI brain scans showed something new. While the participants were considering the inconsistent statements, the part of the brain associated with reasoning revealed no signs of activity at all. "We did not see," said Westen, "any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning. What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts."
But there was something even more startling. 
Once the participants had seen a way to interpret contradictory statements as supporting their original position, the part of the brain involved in reward and pleasure became active, and the conclusion was "massively reinforced . . . with the elimination of negative emotional states and the activation of positive ones."
In the end you'll need to tap into their emotions, and there are ways to do this, which I'll explore in another post.

Monday, September 9, 2013

A brief history of the hashtag

Left, from the pen of Isaac Newton;
Right, from Johann Barchusen’s “Pyrosophia” (1698).
In a review for The New Yorker of Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, Keith Houston writes:
The story of the hashtag begins sometime around the fourteenth century, with the introduction of the Latin abbreviation “lb,” for the Roman term libra pondo, or “pound weight.” Like many standard abbreviations of that period, “lb” was written with the addition of a horizontal bar, known as a tittle, or tilde (an example is shown above, right, in Johann Conrad Barchusen’s “Pyrosophia,” from 1698). 
And though printers commonly cast this barred abbreviation as a single character, it was the rushed pens of scribes that eventually produced the symbol’s modern form: hurriedly dashed off again and again, the barred “lb” mutated into the abstract #. The symbol shown here on the left, a barred “lb” rendered in Isaac Newton’s elegant scrawl, is a missing link, a now-extinct ancestor of the # that bridges the gap between the symbol’s Latin origins and its familiar modern form. 
Though it is now referred to by a number of different names—“hash mark,” “number sign,” and even “octothorpe,” a jokey appellation coined by engineers working on the Touch-Tone telephone keypad—the phrase “pound sign” can be traced to the symbol’s ancient origins. For just as “lb” came from libra, so the word “pound” is descended from pondo, making the # a descendent of the Roman term libra pondo in both name and appearance.
More about the number sign here.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

It's not what they think; it's what they believe

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. 
It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."

~ Mark Twain

Sometimes people refuse to be persuaded. Deeply held beliefs trump argument and evidence. Brian Klapper, a management consultant, tells the story of a company like this.
The CEO of a large U.S. furniture manufacturer asked me to help him reduce customer fulfillment time from 12 weeks to four weeks. The company was using an automated conveyor belt assembly line, and when the workers were unable to keep up with the pace, they hurriedly removed the pieces from the line and put them on the floor — reminiscent of the candy factory scene from "I Love Lucy." Beside each operator was a large pile of partially assembled furniture. 
I suggested to the CEO that unplugging the line and allowing the workers to set the pace would not only result in faster turnaround, but also significantly higher quality furniture, given that the furniture incurred tremendous damage when moved from the belt to the floor. However, management was not convinced. To demonstrate the effectiveness of our suggestion, we set up a pilot line in an abandoned factory, which we ran for a month. Thru-put was 30% higher, quality reached record levels, and morale was way up. Still, management remained unconvinced, believing that workers must be directed, tightly managed, and never allowed to set their own pace.
This is not uncommon. It's a form of confirmation bias. Psychologists Lee Ross and Craig Anderson write:
Beliefs can survive potent logical or empirical challenges. They can survive and even be bolstered by evidence that most uncommitted observers would agree logically demands some weakening of such beliefs. They can even survive the total destruction of their original evidential bases.
For one who wishes to persuade, then, the first task is to understand what the other person believes. Those beliefs will even determine what the person chooses to read. Don't expect a liberal to read a conservative magazine. Don't expect an executive who is skeptical of management consultants to be eagerly anticipating the next issue of McKinsey Quarterly.

In another post I'll explore how we might deal with confirmation bias.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Think of your potential client as a character

A test: identify the need.
Telling corporate stories is all the rage these days. Whatever that means to you, one aspect of story can be relevant as you think about potential clients or customers.

In a work of fiction, the protagonist is propelled along -- motivated -- by some strong need or desire. A writer at Delancey Place notes:
The key to any relationship is to understand clearly what the other person wants. This is true whether that person is a spouse, an employee, a boss, or a friend. It is a task that is made more difficult by the fact that many people don't truly understand what it is they want, or have many wants that contradict or compete with each other. But that difficulty does not lessen the importance of understanding those wants, both within yourself and within those people that are most important to you.
The writer quotes David Corbett, author of The Art of Character:
"There may be no more important question to ask of a character than: What does she want in this scene, in this chapter, in this story? Thinking more globally, one should ask what she wants from her life -- has she achieved it? If not, why not? If so, what now?"
So what is the compelling need of the person with whom you want to do business? The correct answer is usually not the most obvious one.

John Ruskin: the fewest possible words

"Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words or he will certainly misunderstand them."