Thursday, March 27, 2014

Answering the right questions

There's a story here.
Reporters are taught to ask the "5 Ws": who, what, where, when, why. It would be tidier if "how" started with a "w," but we're stuck with it.

This series of questions, also used in police work and elsewhere, can be useful to someone writing about business and economics, even the sometimes abstract "thought leadership."

These questions serve several purposes. One, they are the basics of a story. Two, they anchor what we're trying to say in specifics.

Let me illustrate. I began my career in the New Orleans bureau of The Associated Press. It was our duty to report on home games of the Saints football team. We had a formula for starting these stories. Before I show it, let me suggest several ways to begin a story about a professional football game:
  • The first game of American football, which evolved from rugby football, was played in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton, two schools in New Jersey.
  • As with other football teams, the New Orleans Saints sent 11 men on to the field to take on 11 men from another team and seek to score more points.
Huh? Now here is how we would write it:
  • NEW ORLEANS -- Archie Manning threw three touchdown passes, including a 57-yarder, to lead the New Orleans Saints to a 43-14 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday in the Superdome.
That's a story. It's got a hero in it. He overcomes opposition and achieves his goal. We know who, what, where, when and how. The why is unspoken but understood.

Think about your writing. Can you take that clever, abstract, in the clouds idea and create a story using these questions? I guarantee your readers will appreciate the effort.

Friday, March 21, 2014

More than my dead body!

Listen to the cows.
If you weren't worried about the end of civilization before, worry now.

The Associated Press, my employer for eight years back when words meant something, has now decreed that over is a suitable synonym for more than.

Earth to AP: The rest of us know it isn't.

“There are only two forces that can carry light to all the corners of the globe, "Mark Twain wrote, "the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here.”

Oh right, Mark.

He also wrote: "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning."

Do you really want to read that, "New York's population is over Alabama's."? How would they get up there?

Or that  winter is finally more than? Or that the AP's reputation is also more than?

I don't.

A lot of people won't get more than this. As one journalist wrote, "I felt a disturbance in the force."

(Rachel Kirkpatrick)
“There are only two forces that can carry light to all the corners of the globe… the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here.” - See more at:

Monday, March 17, 2014

Cicero: be brief

"When you wish to instruct, be brief; that men's minds take in quickly what you say, learn its lesson, and retain it faithfully. Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind."

Friday, March 14, 2014

The three duties of a writer

Vladimir Nabokov was a Russian novelist who rose to international prominence as a writer of English. In his Lectures on Literature he writes that a writer has three roles.
There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three — storyteller, teacher, enchanter — but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.

To the storyteller we turn for entertainment, for mental excitement of the simplest kind, for emotional participation, for the pleasure of traveling in some remote region in space or time. 
A slightly different though not necessarily higher mind looks for the teacher in the writer. Propagandist, moralist, prophet — this is the rising sequence. We may go to the teacher not only for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts… 
Finally, and above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.
He is writing about fiction, but these traits can be applied to writing or speaking about business and economics. Our audiences would like a good story, and they are listening or reading to learn something.

If we can offer these, and also inspire -- enchant them, if you will -- we stand a chance to persuade them.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Is it shall or will?

The bottom line: use will for everything, and you'll be safe from the grammar police.

If, however, you want to emphasize your intention, use shall. A famous example of this is in John Kennedy's inaugural address:
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden ...
There are some other rules -- if you happen to live upstairs at Downton Abbey or plan to meet the queen.

Here's how they say it:
In British English, there has been a traditional rule that shall is to be used when the subject is in the first person (I or we), and will in other cases. In practice this rule is commonly not adhered to by any group of English speakers, and many speakers do not differentiate between will and shall when expressing futurity, with the use of will being much more common and less formal than shall. In many specific contexts, however, a distinction still continues.
So it's a rule, but not a rule. Got it? Fowler allows as how the rule "is so complicated that those who are not to the manner born can hardly acquire it."

Winston Churchill surely knew the rule. I don't know if he was honoring it when he promised:
"We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender ... "
His use of shall with the first person we is proper. An American, however, hears an emphasis. I suspect he did as well. As it should be.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

I have an anaphora

Since the celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday in January, I have been thinking about his talent as a speaker, particularly the power he brought to his revered "I have a dream" speech in Washington.

I've learned a few things.

First, the "I have a dream" sequence was improvised on the spur of the moment. What happened was that he he was several minutes into mostly reading his prepared text when the singer Mahalia Jackson, sitting nearby, said out loud to him: "Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream."

So on the spot he began to extemporize on the dream theme, which he'd used before. This shows an extraordinary ability to tune into his audience -- not just hearing Mahalia Jackson, but sensing the mood of the massive crowd.

He used the phrase "I have a dream" eight times to begin sentences. That's an example of anaphora, "the intended use of repetition that is applied to secure emphasis, to heighten the style, intensity, distinctness, or charm."

(In contrast, an epistrophe (or epiphora) is repeating words at the clauses' ends. The combination of anaphora and epistrophe results in symploce, a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is used successively at the beginning of two or more clauses or sentences and another word or phrase with a similar wording is used successively at the end of them.)

Anyone can use this device in speaking or writing, of course. It is indeed powerful, but so is dynamite. Better not play with it if you're not completely sure of what you're doing.

From the mouth of someone lacking King's skill, it can blow up in a face.

Another thing I learned: King was the 16th of 18 speakers that day! Huh? How many of the others do you remember?

Yeah, like that other guy who spoke at Gettysburg.

Once upon a time

I was thinking of the two posts I recently wrote about Lincoln's Gettysburg address (here and here), and something occurred to me.

He begins: "Four score and seven years ago ... "

"Once upon a time ... "

He's telling us a story.