Wednesday, May 28, 2014

When the glove didn't fit

The power of rhyme.
Johnnie Cochran, the defense attorney who got O.J. Simpson acquitted of murder, told the jury:

"Remember these words:
If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."

For emphasis he said, "Remember these words." But that wasn't necessary. Most everyone remembers them to this day.

Rhyme has a special effect on our brains. It's called the "rhyme as reason" effect, or "the Keats Heuristic" after the poet. Various experiments have shown that people judge a saying or aphorism as more accurate or truthful when it rhymes. It also works in advertising and in product names.

One if by land, two if by sea. And I on the opposite shore will be.
Hey, hey, L.B.J., how many kids did you kill today?
It takes a licking but keeps on ticking.
When you need an edge, use Pledge.
Lean Cuisine, Reese’s Pieces, Ronald McDonald
The power of rhyme is perhaps why we use it so often with little children. The babies of pregnant women who read "The Cat in the Hat" by Dr. Seuss repeatedly during their last trimester recognized the verse when they were born, distinguishing it from verse that didn't rhyme.

Why is rhyme so pleasurable?
One theory is that humans like anything that purifies the basics of their world and that resonates with the way the brain decodes the blooming, buzzing confusion out there. We like stripes and plaids, we like periodic and harmonic sounds and we like rhymes.
We don't have to work so hard to understand rhyme.
This gives the phrase what psychologists call "fluency." Research in this area tends to point to the fact that messages that are more fluent are not only more memorable, they’re also perceived as being truer. They’re memorable because they are processed more easily. That ease of processing makes them easier to recall. And of course, messages that you can actually remember are much easier to spread to others.
People are more likely to accept a proposition they don't believe if it's presented in rhyme, says Matthew McGlone, Ph.D., a psychologist at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Asked whether financial success makes people healthier, almost all of McGlone's subjects disagreed, but "wealth makes health" seemed much more plausible.

Occasionally, rhyme has the opposite effect, however. "It will backfire when an audience has reason to be suspicious of the speaker," McGlone says. "
For instance, Cochran's "if the glove doesn't fit'"line was treated as a rallying cry by African-American newspapers, but as a gimmick by the mainstream press, which for the most part portrayed Cochran as a huckster from the beginning of the trial." Suspicion,  McGlone explains, provides the motivation to scrutinize a message more closely -- and to make sure it's as pleasing to the intellect as it is to the ear.
Cochran was a successful, wealthy and flamboyant lawyer who liked to say that he worked "not only for the OJs, but also the No Js". Another member of Simpson's "Dream Team" of lawyers was Gerald Uelmen, who came up with the glove doesn't fit phrase, which Cochran borrowed.

If you wish to incorporate rhyme in your speaking or writing, remember that Cochran was a showman. It was in character for him to do this. Moreover, the glove was a central part of the case; the rhyme was not manufactured and forced to fit. As it were.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

What do you mean?

Writer to editor.
“Writing is an instrument for conveying ideas from one mind to another; your job as a writer is to make the reader grasp your meaning readily and precisely. Do you always say just what you mean? Do you yourself always know just what you mean?”

~ Ernest Gowers

Gowers was the author of Plain Words, which has recently been revised by his daughter, Rebecca Gowers. Michael Skapinker, a Financial Times columnist, calls it "still the best book on English and how to write it."

Before we can transmit meaning to the reader, we must say what we mean. That requires that we know just what we mean.

Writing helps us to discover that. This is why writing is really rewriting. The first go is where we discover what it is we're thinking. The second draft is where we attempt to explain what it is we're thinking. It's where we discover that free floating thoughts don't translate easily to linear words on paper.

A final draft cleans it all up: Is this the wrong word? Will a reader get this?

That's when it's ready for an editor, who will point out that we're kidding ourselves.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Yes, another list of misused words

Cute dog.
If you ask Google for "incorrectly used words," you'll get nearly 73 million listings. That'a a lot of misused words, and a lot of people making up lists of incorrectly used words.

This says two things. One, given all this misuse it's a miracle we can understand each other. Two, a lot of people have time on their hands.

Then there is the very lowest life form, which comes along and steals someone else's list. That would be me.

With apologies to Jeff Haden at Inc., here are some troubling words. Explain to your dog that precision matters. It doesn't matter that other people are lazy. You can set yourself apart by using words correctly.
Anticipate: "We anticipate earnings will increase by $1 per share." No, you don't. To anticipate means to look ahead and prepare. So you can anticipate increased sales, but only if you are also making preparations to handle that increase in sales; for example, "We added staffing in anticipation of increased sales." If you're estimating or wishful guessing, use estimate or expect instead. 

Can: Can is used to indicate what is possible. May is used to indicate what is permissible. I can offer kickbacks to certain vendors, but unless I'm ethically challenged, I may not. Telling your staff members, "You cannot offer refunds without authorization," sounds great but is incorrect. They certainly can, even though they shouldn't.

Invariably: This word gets tossed in to indicate frequency: "Invariably, Johnny misses deadlines," is correct only if Johnny always, always, always misses deadlines, because invariably means "in every case or occasion." Unless Johnny messes up each and every time, without fail, use frequently, or usually, or even almost always. And then think about his long-term employment status.

Irregardless: Here's a word that appears in many dictionaries simply because it's used so often. Irregardless is used to mean without regard to or without respect to ... which is what regardless means. In theory, the ir part, which typically means not, joined up with regardless, which means "without regard to," makes irregardless mean "not without regard to," or more simply, "with regard to." Which is clearly not what you mean. So save yourself one syllable or two keystrokes and just say regardless.

Literally: Literally is frequently used (all too often by teenagers I know) to add emphasis. The problem is, literally means "actually, without exaggeration," so, "That customer was literally foaming at the mouth," cannot be true without the involvement of rabies. The only time using literally makes sense is when you need to indicate what is normally a figurative expression is, this time, truly the case. Saying, "He literally died when he saw the invoice," works only if the customer did, in fact, pass away moments after seeing the bill.

Would: First two definitions. Would indicates the outcome of an imagined or theoretical event. Will indicates the future tense of something that is inevitable - in other words, something that is going to happen. Think of would as conditional and will as a promise. And that's why they almost never belong in the same sentence. "The project would be phased in over the next several months and will cost $3 million," mixes the theoretical with the factual. If it happens, it would cost $3 million. Here's the easy fix: don't mix would and will. Decide whether you're stating what is going to happen or what may happen. Then use would both times, or will both times. Then you're always safe.
If you would study these words you will anticipate that you may literally surpass that idiot Harvey in accounts receivable irregardless of the fact that his uncle is the CEO.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Give your audience a break

Go out there and knock 'em dead!
I once attended a casual cookout to celebrate a gentleman's extraordinary achievement. He was invited to say a few words.

I was standing near the back of the small crowd. As the chicken grew cold and the ice cream melted, a friend wandered next to me and whispered, "Are we up to the Civil War yet?"

If you are ever called on to say a few words, please don't tell your life story.

Bill Murphy Jr., a journalist and author in Washington DC, offers some worthwhile advice for these occasions:

1. Strip it down. There's an unfortunate temptation in a short speech to try to cram everything you have to say into a short time. Instead of trying to make the time fit the speech, however, recognize that you have to make your remarks fit the time allotted. If you've got five minutes to talk, you shouldn't have more than three main points.

2. Plan and rehearse. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that short remarks require less preparation. In fact, giving a good short speech can be harder than giving a long one.

3. Cut yourself off. In the history of the entire world, I don't think anyone has ever said, "I wish that speech had been longer." So keep track of time, and by all means don't ramble. If you've run out of time to make a major point, either work it into the questions people have for you afterward, or send a follow-up note to the members of the audience.

4. Use milestones. For a five minute speech, you want to organize in roughly one-minute intervals, and you want to offer milestones to the audience at the top of each minute. You get one minute for your introduction, during which you explain what you plan to say. Then you get 60 seconds each for your three main points. That last 60 seconds can be used either for a short conclusion, or as a buffer in case you run long.

Think how much you appreciate speakers who respect your time. If you suddenly find yourself arriving at the Civil War, shut up and sit down.

As a courtesy to you, I condensed Murphy's piece. Read it all here.

Monday, May 19, 2014

When the passive voice can be used by you

One of the easiest ways to improve your writing is to use the active voice wherever possible. It's amazing what that change can do.

But not every use of the passive is wrong. First, let's be clear what the passive voice is.
The noun that would be the object of an active sentence (such as, Our troops defeated the enemy) appears as the subject of a sentence with passive voice (e.g., The enemy was defeated by our troops).
Why it is a weak construction can be seen in its use by politicans. "Mistakes were made" doesn't tell us who made them, which is the point of saying it that way.

However, we should use the passive voice on certain occasions. Here are some.
  1. The actor is unknown:
    The cave paintings of Lascaux were made in the Upper Old Stone Age. [We don't know who made them.]
  2. The actor is irrelevant:
    An experimental solar power plant will be built in the Australian desert. [We are not interested in who is building it.]
  3. You are talking about a general truth:
    Rules are made to be broken. [By whomever, whenever.]
  4. You want to emphasize the person or thing acted on. For example, it may be your main topic:
    Insulin was first discovered in 1921 by researchers at the University of Toronto. It is still the only treatment available for diabetes.
So don't let Microsoft Word's grammar cop bully you every time.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Putting the five fundamental questions to work

When you ask the five fundamental questions -- who, what, where, when and why -- you have the elements of a story.

This works whether you're on deadline in a newsroom or trying to get a child to sleep. But will it work in the sophisticated idea journalism of business?

As an experiment, I went to the strategy+business website. This is the journal of stragegy&, formerly Booz & Co., which created the term "thought leadership" in the early 90s. I contributed to the journal some years ago.

I selected an article at random. The title "Cut Your Company’s Fat but Keep Some Slack" caught my eye, and I knew what it would be about -- a company can be too lean. Would these experts in thought leadership use the five fundamental questions in constructing the article?

The article begins with an anecdote about a hospital in Missouri. Anecdotes are little stories, so I'm feeling confident. Who: doctors and administrators. What: chaos. Where: surgical suite. When: all day. Why: no spare operating rooms.

Whew! I was right. But there's more.

The anecdote uses three paragraphs. The fourth graf is what we called "the fat graf" in The Associated Press Newsfeatures department, where I camped out for four years. It's fat because it takes extra space to explain to the reader what the article is about and why he should read it. Jack Capon, our brilliant editor back then, demanded that the fat graf come no later than third.

The strategy-business editors use one sentence to explain what's up: "Many systems require slack in order to run smoothly."

Got it. Then they're back into telling stories. Some words about crowded highways, which we all understand. Then, shifting to the second person, a discussion of you and your assistant and your calendar.

Note that the editors wait til the 10th graf to use the buzzword "lean and mean." Up til then, they label the concept "slack." I'd say this are okay jargon, because ordinary people use these terms.

Instead of abstract concepts, the writer has been telling stories. Just answering the five fundamental questions in different ways. We're having fun reading, and we're getting the idea.

You won't go wrong copying this approach.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Leaving the state of confusion

I live in Ct., and I will forego jokes about whether you can call living in Conn. living. Let's just say it's not much different than living in CT.

This is why I'm pleased with my former employer, The Associated Press, for declaring that, henceforth, states will be spelled out in running text. There are all sorts of qualifiers, but the heck with them.

I've been spelling out state names for a long time, because I've never figured out in which state I live. Or what about those pathetic people in Wisc.? Don't you just hate to type Wisc.? I do. It's just odd.

We can blame all this on the Post Office and its two-letter system. Is it any wonder that monstrosity is running up $25 million a day in debt to add to its $20 billion? It's all due to that two-letter madness.

BTW, the refined and somewhat uppity Chicago Manual of Style has always spelled out state names. Then again, Chicago's pension fund is short about $20 billion, too, although I think I'm in a state of confusion. I'm just so delirious over the The AP's decision.

Monday, May 12, 2014

What to do before your speech

I used to do a good bit of after dinner speaking to advertisers in the magazine where I was an editor. My practice was to show up at the site a full hour before the dinner was to begin.

You just never know.

Once I arrive at this outdoor restaurant on the beach on one of the islands. The tables where the audience would sit were on one side. Off on the other side, behind some potted palms, was the podium.

"You'll have to move it over here," I said, wondering why I would even have to say it.

"But the microphone won't reach," the person in charge said.

"In one hour it will reach," I said.

This is one of the rules Jacquelyn Smith advises in Business Insider.
Check out the meeting room and audiovisual set-up. As the speaker, be sure you know the environment, including the seating arrangement, presentation electronics, microphone, and lighting. Get to the room early and ensure you're comfortable with the set-up.
I don't know how many times I've shown up to hear a presentation only to watch the presenter struggle with his projector or laptop or microphone or notes. Can't these people show up a few minutes early to see if it all works. Really, people.

Here are few suggestions.
  • Use the restroom.
  • Meet and greet the audience before you speak.
  • Take several deep belly breaths.
  • Practice the first minute in your mind.
Before you start, stand at the podium. Look at the audience. Let them see you. Get used to what it feels like. And make sure the podium is where it should be. Sheesh.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Before you write one word

What are they thinking?
If your task is to write an article or give a speech, start by asking questions about your audience. It's the only way.

Who are they? What do they think about me? About my topic? What interests them?

Even: what language do they speak? I have spoken before groups of people from many countries and languages all in one room together. Although they all spoke English, I couldn't rely on their understanding of Americanisms. Or even their agility with English -- were they translating into their own language, and how taxing is that?

We like to think about our topic. It's what we know and what interests us. But we don't write or speak in a vacuum. We have to meet our readers or listeners where they are, and then lead them to where we want them. If they've never heard of 3D printing, and that's our topic, we've got some work to do. If they're not a techie audience, more work.

Here are three questions to ask about your audience. They are from Kathleen Kelley Reardon, professor of management at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. Her primary areas of scholarly interest have included leadership communication, persuasion, and interpersonal communication. Public Opinion Quarterly called her first book, Persuasion in Practice, ”a landmark contribution to the field.”

What I've just used is an appeal to authority to impress you. Reardon is nothing if not authoritative.

The three questions she proposes ask what appeals to our audience. They are a shortcut for developing positions that are likely to resonate with those we wish to influence.
Appropriateness appeals, based on social norms, address whether a way of thinking, speaking or acting is right or wrong in a particular group, organization or culture (e.g., “That’s not how things are done here” or “Everyone does this. You should too”).

Consistency appeals, derived from desire for balance or consistency across behaviors, address whether a way of thinking, speaking or acting fits with prior ones or one’s self-perception (e.g., “You’ve never done that before” or “This is so much like you”).

Effectiveness appeals, useful because human action is often goal-driven, address whether a way of thinking, speaking or acting is likely to work given the goals at hand (e.g., “That will never get you what you want” or “You’ll certainly have my attention”).
If we understand our audience in these three ways, we are way ahead of the game.
Skill in assessing what matters most among the three ACE Method persuasion categories, at a particular point in time for a person or persons, is critical in making good use of it. Sometimes this requires observing others over time or, when that’s not possible, asking questions that assess priorities. 
Here is one example of this in practice:
Marketers often use appropriateness, consistency and effectiveness considerations in developing advertisements. Auto ads focus on what others would think of us were we to purchase a particular model, consistency with self-image or desired self-image, and/or effectiveness of purchase, perhaps in terms of handling, gas mileage, or cost.
Reardon calls this The ACE Method. There are other questions, of course, but this is a good start. Use it and you'll ace your next presentation.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

So you shouldn't say "so" so much

So when I saw an article in Fast Company about the word "so" I realized immediately that I overuse it.

Don't know why. It's just a habit I picked up -- perhaps from hearing others use it. We all do that, no? We hear others using a word and we just lapse into using it, too.

So here's what Hunter Thurman, founder of the innovation consultancy, Thriveplan, has to say:
1. “So” insults your audience. That little head cock, slight furrowing of the brow, and set-up with “so” says to your audience, “I’m trying to dumb this down so someone like you may have at least a chance of comprehending the importance of what I do.”

2. “So” undermines your credibility. The “so” setup also announces: here comes the rehearsed part of my discussion.

3. “So” demonstrates that you’re not 100% comfortable with what you’re saying. Just as the “so” setup announces that this portion of the conversation will be very deliberate, it also demonstrates that you’re not as comfortable with your story as you think you are.
I'm not sure I get the first one, but the others ring true.

There's a larger lesson here. We should periodically look at our writing for useless words. There (as in the previous sentence) comes to mind. Really: what does it say that we have to say this? Very: just covenant with yourself that you'll never, ever use this word again as long as you live. Okay: a lazy man's segue.

Okay, enough on that. Really.

Think how much time you'll save if you drop these words. You could probably wrap up your life a few years earlier.