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