Monday, February 24, 2014

Your vocabulary may be killing you

Don't do this.
As a listener, you've experienced the following annoyances. Your head explodes, right? So why would you expect others to think kindly of you when you commit them? Friends don't let friends' heads explode.

Geoffrey James catalogs the explosives:

Jargon consists of hijacking normal words and using them in odd ways to make them sound "businessy." Example: "We're reaching out to our customer advocates to leverage a dialogue on...." While others who speak fluent biz-blab might not take notice or care, everyone else cringes and rolls their eyes.

Fix: Use words as they're defined in the dictionary. Example: "We're contacting our customers to discuss...." That way, you'll sound more like a professional and less like a cartoon businessperson.
These are those metaphors that have been used so frequently that all the juice has been leeched from them. Examples: "out-of-the-box thinking" or "hitting one out of the ballpark." Clichés aren't just unoriginal but also reveal a lack of respect for the listener. If you really cared, you wouldn't trot out these creaky phrases.

Fix: Avoid metaphors completely or use original ones. If that's too hard, tweak the wording of clichés to make them less cliché-ish. Example: my use of "leeched" rather than "squeezed" in the paragraph above. Worst case, adding "proverbial" can refresh a cliché with a pinch of irony. Example: "out of the proverbial ballpark."
Using big, impressive sounding words rather than smaller, common ones can leave listeners with the impression that you're pompous and pretentious. Examples: "assess strategic options and tactical approaches" (i.e. "plan") or "implement communications infrastructure" (i.e. "add wireless"). Fancy-schmancy wording adds bulk and extracts clarity.

Fix: The core problem here is the need to feel as if your business and your activities are more important and impressive than they really are. The fix, therefore, is a big dose of humility. Business is neither rocket science nor brain surgery--it is, in fact, a place where plain talk is both valued and appreciated.
More advice here.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Let's dethrone content

If content is king, then it has no clothes on.

And, please, I'm a writer, not a content creator.

Yet so called "content marketing" consumed one-third of all business-to-business marketing spending in 2012, according to, wait for it, the Content Marketing Institute.

This factoid comes from Tom Stewart, chief marketing and knowledge officer of the management consulting firm Booz & Company. He should understand this business, if anyone does. He's a former editor of the Harvard Business Review. And his firm coined the term "thought leader."

Stewart describes content marketing thusly:
Content marketing takes thought leadership and puts it in play—cuts it up, makes ideas “snackable,” puts them “out there” so that someone (i.e., you) will be intrigued enough to want to learn more and, eventually, buy something.
It may be snackable, but it very often isn't nourishing. Stewart:
A lot of what you see is just sales material with understated typography. People surveyed by the Content Marketing Institute said that their biggest problem is producing enough content—nearly two-thirds cite this. The second-biggest problem these marketers face is creating content that “engages.” That sounds like people who don’t let the fact that they have little to say inhibit them from talking a lot.
Ah. There are good movies and bad, good novels and bad. And there is good business writing and bad. There is good TV and bad, but all the cable channels have to run something, so they do. And all the "content marketers" out there have to publish something.

Where is the rubicon? It's somewhere in that Bermuda Triangle of creation where a person who can type becomes a Writer with a capital W. It is the place where, as words are formed, ideas blossom from the ether. If we get away from the terms "content marketing" and "thought leadership" and get back to "thinking" and "writing" we may find it. (And, no, modifying "content" with "quality" only makes it worse.)

Good writing in any realm is a fresh idea expressed in a fresh way.

You know it when you read it.

Long live the king.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Secrets of the Gettysburg Address

One master studies the other.
Abraham Lincoln was the master of metaphor. We can see this at work in his Gettysburg Address, which is an extended metaphor.

Joe Romm writes:
Extended metaphor is, for me, the most important rhetorical device. This figure is at the heart of some of Lincoln’s greatest speeches and Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Persistent metaphors pump life blood into the Bible, into Jesus’ parables and Psalms.
Romm details its use in Lincoln's famous address.
The speech is only 270 words long -- almost precisely the same length as the “To be or not to be speech.” Lincoln makes it unforgettable using an extended metaphor of birth, death, and resurrection to increase the coherence and impact of his brief remarks.
Lincoln delivers a variety of references to birth from the very beginning, “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He says the civil war is testing whether “any nation so conceived … can long endure.”
Lincoln then moves on to images and words of death, as befits the horrific battlefield in front of him, with phrases such as “a final resting place for those who here gave their lives” and “the brave men, living and dead” and “these honored dead” and “these dead.”
He finally returns to the original metaphor of birth, but with a twist: We must resolve that “this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Birth, death, rebirth and immortality (“shall not perish”) -- in a place that we will make sacred (“hallow” and “consecrate” and the key repeated word, “dedicate”) -- is a stunning extended metaphor that turns into an biblical allusion of hope for transcendence even during the worst suffering, with the Battle of Gettysburg becoming a symbolic national crucifixion.
No wonder Winston Churchill termed Lincoln’s speech “the ultimate expression of the majesty of Shakespeare’s language.”
Churchill should know -- he, too, was a master of the language. A study of the art of persuasion might very well begin with these two leaders.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

How to quickly build rapport with someone

"The Conversation," Arnold Lakhovsky
You're at a conference or a seminar and it's time to connect with people. Ugh.

You're there to sell yourself, of course, but the route to that is counter intuitive. To succeed, you have to focus on the other person.

If  you let the other person sell himself to you he will leave thinking you're the smartest person in the room.

Here are some suggestions on building rapport from Robin Dreeke, author of It’s Not All About Me. Dreeke is the lead instructor at the FBI’s Counterintelligence Training Center in all behavioral and interpersonal skills training.

Hmmm. Shane Parrish breaks it down:

1. Establish time constraints. "The first step in the process of developing great rapport and having great conversations is letting the other person know that there is an end in sight, and it is really close."

2. Smile. Duh. "Adding a slight head tilt shows the other person that you have comfort with them and trust them. Another nonverbal to try and maintain is a slightly lower chin angle." (A high chin makes them feel you're looking down on them.)

3. Don't stand toe to toe. "A slight body angle or blade away from the individual you are engaging will present a much more accommodating nonverbal."

4. Shake hands correctly. "An accommodating handshake is one that matches the strength of the other, and also takes more of a palm up angle."

5. Speak slowly. "Whenever I have a conversation that I believe is important for me to be credible in my content, I purposely slow down the delivery and take pauses for people to absorb the content of what I have just said."

6. Suspend your ego. "Suspending your ego is nothing more complex than putting other individuals’ wants, needs, and perceptions of reality ahead of your own. Most times, when two individuals engage in a conversation, each patiently waits for the other person to be done with whatever story he or she is telling. Then, the other person tells his or her own story, usually on a related topic and often times in an attempt to have a better and more interesting story. Individuals practicing good ego suspension would continue to encourage the other individual to talk about his or her story, neglecting their own need to share what they think is a great story."

7. Listen. "This validation coupled with ego suspension means that you have no story to offer, that you are there simply to hear theirs."

More suggestions at Farnam Street.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Abe Lincoln: Master of Metaphor

The persuader.
We know from the Gettysburg Address that Abraham Lincoln had a way with words.

I was not aware of the full extent of his skill, however, until I came across an article by Dennis N.T. Perkins and his colleagues at the Syncretics Group in Madison, Connecticut. They write about the power of metaphor to persuade. Lincoln was the master.

Perkins quotes the historian James McPherson as saying that Lincoln "won the war with metaphors."

That's power. And here's the irony:

Lincoln had only a year of formal schooling. He taught himself by reading the Bible, Aesop's Fables, Pilgrim's Progress and Shakespeare.

His opposite in the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, went to the best schools. He was trained in rhetoric, logic, literature and science. In his writing and speech he was drawn to abstractions and platitudes.

Lincoln's speeches and writing, on the other hand, were filled with images. In one noted example, his speech to the legislature in Springfield, Illinois, included the sentence: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." That image captured his belief about the country. And he knew the people would recognize and understand it.

Joe Romm, a journalist and former government official, writes:
In a famous 1858 speech, Lincoln paraphrased Jesus, saying “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” and he extended the house metaphor throughout the speech. His law partner, William Herndon, later wrote that Lincoln had told him he wanted to use “some universally known figure [of speech] expressed in simple language “¦ that may strike home to the minds of men in order to raise them up to the peril of the times.”
Which worked. Historian David Potter has suggested that "if the Union and the Confederacy had exchanged presidents, the South might have won the war."

Yes, a leader must know how to use words.