Thursday, January 30, 2014

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On being a thought leader: a game plan

I was drawn to this headline at Big Think: How To Live Forever. How could I not be?

It was a piece by Dr. Thorsten Pattburg, a German writer, linguist and cultural critic. The article was a sort of instruction manual for becoming a spiritual leader, one whose influence would last beyond his lifetime.

Thought leadership in the business world being my craft, I saw in Pattburg's piece guidance that would apply across disciplines. There is about his writing the possibility that he is being cynical: one might, we could infer, become a spiritual leader without being at all sincere.

Ignoring that possibility -- it may be just the journalist in me anyway -- here are a few of his suggestions:
Have a great idea. You need a plan, a system, a manifesto, a mission. Write it down. It can be a book, an unpublished manuscript, an essay, a drawing, a diary, a couple of poems, a draft for a constitution, or just a few lines of your thought. Something! Think about Chairman Mao's Little Red Book. Your idea will become the genius sitting on your shoulder and attending your actions; it's your guiding spirit, your talisman, and your protector. Having it will forever distract the critic's eye away from your over-the-top personality toward that genius.
Become historically aware. You must spiritually connect with historical events and famous people in history. You do so by comparing your idea with already existing ones, ideally from two thousand years ago, as if your thoughts were, say, the logical conclusion of the teachings of Confucius, Buddha, or Jesus Christ, etc. Your idea is universal and was previously known to other great men in history, so you are the obvious heir to the kingdom of thought.
Be a force of creation. To create is to know, they say. Great leaders are constantly creating new connections between themselves, their followers, and the movement to current domestic, economical, cultural, and political affairs. Everything is interconnected, that is the essence of all spirituality. In addition, just as companies like Google or Apple are putting out new software products and patents, so your spiritual enterprise, too, must constantly produce new consumer products, videos, articles, and new word-creations.
Manage your image. Most spiritual leaders adopt an iconic look and style and stick to that a life-time in order to remain universally recognizable. Now, how to get your image and your idea out to the people? The key is public relations. Many times people will write articles about you, some will publish your stuff, but in order to stay in control over your universal image you must produce in-house. Get a management team and agent(s); create your own newspaper, journal, show, magazine, and publishing house.
Sound familiar?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Where have all the readers gone?

They've gone to tablets and smart phones, most everyone.

Henry Blodget, the CEO of Business Insider, shows the trend with this chart:

CNN has seen the light.
This will be the year CNN sees the majority of its online audience come from mobile devices. In 2013, 40 percent of the traffic to came from mobile, so 50 percent isn’t some distant goal.

Pew Research says 63 percent of U.S. adult mobile owners use their phone to go online — all media companies are seeing a lift in their mobile stats. ESPN’s mobile audience surpassed desktop readers in late 2013; traffic to the BBC’s website is majority mobile on weekends. Major technology companies long ago passed that barrier — 48 percent of Facebook’s active users are now only using mobile over a given month.
I know that if you want to reach me in the evening you'll need to make your site readable on my phone. I can't even be bothered with my laptop. Heck, I even find my wife's iPad too clunky.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Short words are the best

They were the first words. Use them.

A writer at The Economist:
Though the tongue in which you read this stole words from here and there, and still does, at the start, if there was one, its words were short. Huh, you may say, those first “words” were no more than grunts.
Yet soon they grew to be grunts with a gist, and time has shown that, add to the length of your words as you may, it is hard to beat a good grunt with a good gist. That is why the short words, when old, are still the tops. Tough as boots or soft as silk, sharp as steel or blunt as toast, there are old, short words to fit each need.
You want to make love, have a chat, ask the way, thank your stars, curse your luck or swear, scold and rail? Just pluck an old, short word at will. If you doubt that you will find the one you seek, look at what can be done with not much: “To be or not to be?” “And God said, Let there be light; and there was light,” “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

“Short words are best,” Winston Churchill said, “and old words when short are the best of all.”

Thursday, January 23, 2014

You don't need to use "utilize"

Editors assume that writers use utilize in an effort to sound important. That's why most editors will compulsively change it.

For one thing, it has three syllables with a "t" and a "z" in there to slow the reader up.

It is not synonymous with use.

Editors talking about you.
We know how to use use, and you can go right ahead and use it whenever you like, and you won't be wrong.

Utilize, however, has a more specific meaning: You utilize items when you create a new or nontraditional job for them. For example:
You can use a fork to eat with, or you can use a fork to prop open a window, without stepping into any grammar holes. However, you can not utilize a fork for eating, while you can utilize a fork to prop open a window.
Got it? Here's more:
Merriam-Webster defines utilize as, “to make use of; turn to practical use or account.” So how is this different from use? In a nutshell, to utilize something is to give it a use it may not have originally had. For example:

• Yes, you can utilize the conference room for your holiday party.
• We utilize Excel for our database instead of Access.
• Our company utilizes many common tools to come up with new innovations.
That's enough. My suggestion is that, unless you're trying to make a specific point about the use of an item, don't use utilize lest people think you're pretentious.

Monday, January 20, 2014

No, don't push all the floor buttons

Let me out!
I just read an article on how to craft an elevator pitch, and MEGO! -- my eyes glazed over. I don't know much more than I did before I read it.

If you google "elevator pitch" you'll find a day's worth of reading. Read it if you want to kill a day. My task now is to not add to that pile of useless verbiage. You can give me a grade, if you wish. If I fail you can scrawl my phone number on the wall of an elevator with "for a real boring time, call ... "

Here are my thoughts.

1. You have to be brief. I watched a YouTube video of some guy who won an elevator pitch competition, and he just went on and on til I was lost. Don't do that.

2. If nothing else, be clear. I watched another video of a fellow who was some kind of pitch champion. He said his name, then said he is CEO of ... what? I didn't get it. I missed it. He said it too fast and without emphasis. Learn to pause. Silence is as powerful as sound.

Let me tell you a story about clarity. I created an LLC for my writing business, and the name I chose was "Sakka." That's the Japanese word for "writer." Clever, eh? I love the care and contemplation the Japanese give to their arts, including writing. That was the idea.

Well, the first thing I had to do with that company name was explain it. I had to take one step backward before I could get anywhere.

Don't get an elevator and tell someone you have a company called "Sakka." Please.

3. Go off in the woods for a day and contemplate yourself. You need to know who you really are and what you are really good at. When you come out of the woods, you can call this your USP. Sounds like some kind of computer thing, but it means "unique selling proposition."

There are way too many writers. I was a youngster on the business news staff of The Associated Press early in my career. One of the veterans popped my bubble one day. "Good writers," he said, "are a dime a dozen."

Oh great. 

So I need a USP. For 40 years people have paid me to write. Why? I need to understand that. 

My USP, I think, has something to do with: I've been around long enough to know what works and what doesn't, and I won't get you in trouble. I have enough to do without creating work for myself at your expense. I like to partner with people who are doing interesting work. You can trust me; I won't cheat you on hours or lazy writing. Some really smart people have paid me big bucks and like what I did for them.

Now I need to boil that down to a sentence. (All suggestions welcomed.)

I was once in an outplacement program -- the limbo companies send you to when they dump you. We sat around one day and practiced our elevator pitches.

I quickly realized that I only need to say: "I'm a writer."

This automatically leads the other person to: "Oh? What do you write?"

Then I am free to say anything. What I want to say is: "Whatever you will pay me to write."

Don't do that.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Please tell me a content

(David Levy)

What I don't know would fill books

A friend of mine recently told me that learning to say "I don't know" was very hard, especially in the corporate world, where we are expected to fake to make it to 5 o'clock.

When he finally learned to admit it that he didn't know everything, my friend said, he felt, well, enlightened. At least liberated.

I've been reading about Japanese calligraphy, and I'm playing with the idea mastering it is somewhat akin to "I don't know." The masters of this art, or shodō, are said to seek a "no mind state" before they pick up the brush
To write Zen calligraphy with mastery, one must clear one's mind and let the letters flow out of themselves, not practice and make a tremendous effort. This state of mind was called the muslin ("no mind state") by the Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro. It is based on the principles of Zen Buddhism, which stresses a connection to the spiritual rather than the physical.
Here is more on mushin.
The term is shortened from mushin no shin, a Zen expression meaning the mind without mind and is also referred to as the state of "no-mindness". That is, a mind not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion and thus open to everything. 
Mushin is achieved when a person's mind is free from thoughts of anger, fear, or ego during combat or everyday life. There is an absence of discursive thought and judgment, so the person is totally free to act and react without hesitation and without disturbance from such thoughts. At this point, a person relies not on what they think should be the next move, but what is felt intuitively.
I hesitate to attempt an application of this concept, especially to the matter of fact world of business writing. That would seem to violate the principle.

However, these thoughts arise, particularly for the business of thought leadership.

1. We all carry around a burden of beliefs and assumptions, and we aren't really aware of them. For example, do you assume that people act rationally? How does this influence your writing? Do you believe that capitalism is best when unfettered? How does this affect what you choose to write about?

2. If we wish to be genuine leaders of thought, we won't get there by repeating everything we think we know. We have to clear our minds of all that. We have to start afresh.

3. If we start from a position of humility -- I know very little -- we are more likely to arrive at a new insight, as opposed to a rearrangement of the thoughts of others. I guess I should be grateful for all I don't know.

Good writing is the fresh expression of a fresh idea. An empty mind seems a good starting point.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

You look mahvelous

Your picture is everywhere these days, right? Website, LinkedIn, on and on.

You can hire a professional for several hundred or several thousand to get a nice headshot.

Or you can do it yourself. If you do, here are two techniques guaranteed to make you gorgeous. They will require some practice, but everyone can learn them. Close your door and practice with your laptop's camera.

New York portrait photographer Peter Hurley believes it's all in the jaw and the eyes. You want to emphasize your jaw line and squinch your eyes. You do the first by holding your forehead forward to smooth the skin over your jaw. You accomplish the second by slightly raising your lower eyelid.

It's easier to understand this if you look at two of his videos. They run on a bit, but he's an entertaining guy. Have a look til you get the point.

The first is about your jaw:

The second is about your eyes:

You're looking better already.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The sloppiness of modern prose

George Orwell illustrates how poor our writing is:

"Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
"Here it is in modern English:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
"This is a parody, but not a very gross one. It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations -- race, battle, bread -- dissolve into the vague phrases “success or failure in competitive activities.” This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing -- no one capable of using phrases like “objective considerations of contemporary phenomena” -- would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. 

"Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (“time and chance”) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. 

"I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes."

Thursday, January 2, 2014

So is it he, she or it?

But you should follow the rules.
When I was growing up and trying to avoid the wrath of Miss Schindler, my eighth-grade English teacher, I learned that subjects and verbs must agree. I also learned that "he" was acceptable for both boys and girls, just as "mankind" was acceptable for both genders.

In fact, that was the rule. An arbitrary rule, to be sure, but isn't every grammar rule arbitrary? These days we're so liberated and daring that we declare that it's okay to break a rule, because, you know, some white guy who is now dead just made it up.

That's fine with me, but we need some rules so that we can understand what other people are saying. That's hard enough as it is, since so many people are saying just pure nonsense.

It's like English TV shows: if the actors have a heavy accent and speak too quickly, I have a hard time following them. Unconventional grammar is like an unfamiliar accent. People trying to use a second language get hung up on slang and idioms, the rule-breaking stuff that people just make up.

That's today's sermon. I'll now pass the collection plate.

So what are we to do with this he/she business? Some women object to the constant use of "he," because, well, there are she-women out there, too.

That's okay by me, except that it's problematic for a writer. Constantly switching between he and she is clunky. Substituting "they" for he or she just doesn't sound right to anyone instructed as I was. Writers and editors abhor "he or she" or "s/he," because they are, well, wordy. And stupid.

The Oxford Dictionaries are firmly politically correct: use "he or she" and "they." If you go that way, cite Oxford. Nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM.

I recently came across a rousing discussion of this in a Linked In group called Linkeds & Writers. I suppose you have to join the group to follow along.

These are people in the trenches earning a living (or trying to) by cleaning up your writing. I'm going to quote a few of them to give you some suggestions. I'm only going to quote women.
"I'm also big on using plurals: customers, not customer. Also, to use your example: "The contact person/representative who returns a customer's calls will already have that individual's history." Yes, sometimes it means being a little wordier than you'd like, but it resolves the problem." ~ Debra
So she's avoiding it by writing around it, which is what I'm guessing most writers and editors try to do. It's not always possible.
"It seems to me that the first choice should always be to avoid 3rd-person-singular pronouns entirely, and build sentences using tricks like Debra's to avoid leaving holes where the reader would expect such pronouns. Plurals work in many other cases, and named individuals in most of the rest. 
"Switching genders back and forth is so apt to lead to problems. Though alternating pronoun genders is often recommended as a way to approach the [3rd-person-singular pronoun] issue, it actually tends to exacerbate the problem because it sets a sort of mental calculator going in the reader’s mind -- Are the two sexes really portrayed in equal numbers and with equal emotional loading? -- that reduces the mental circuitry available for the topic actually under discussion even when, as rarely happens, the answer is yes." ~ Hilary
I like that, because it suggests that all our worrying may just be annoying the reader, who is surely going to notice our contrivances more than our political correctness.
"What a cumbersome load of PC crap! Switching genders (to satisfy the client's PC angle) creates only cluttered and confusing writing. Stick with "he" or "they" and be done with it. Submitting to a ridiculous gender aspect, particularly in business writing where people generally really don't care and would rather read clarity and simplicity of expression than cumbersome ping-ponging of pronouns, well, you and the client enjoy the written mess you're creating." ~ Alison
There you go. Just do it that way. Great writers have been using "they" in this context forever. Shakespeare is often cited. Shakespeare is often cited for just about anything anybody wants to do. So if you go this route, cite Shakespeare.

Nobody every got fired for quoting Shakespeare at the water cooler.