Tuesday, September 30, 2014

On selecting the right word

You decide.
If there's one constant difficulty in business writing, it's abstract words.

The concepts we seek to convey are often abstractions, and we have an inclination to use big words, thinking they lend gravitas to our brilliance.

Turns out our readers can sniff this out, and turn us off when they do.

Jamie Reilly, now a professor at Temple University, and his colleagues analyzed more than 2,000 English nouns and found that, to some extent, abstract nouns tend to be longer and more morphologically complex (having more prefixes and suffixes) than concrete ones.

Here's the problem, Jessica Love writes in The American Scholar:
We as English speakers have internalized these differences, and will happily use them to gauge the concreteness or abstractness of strings of letters. And nouns that don’t conform to our ideas about how they should sound—abstract nouns that are short and simple, concrete ones that are long and complex—are understood more slowly than those that meet our expectations.
One possibility is that the two classes of nouns differ etymologically, she writes.
Old English has Germanic origins. But since the 11th century, Latin has also exerted a powerful influence on the language. And beginning in the Renaissance, when it became more acceptable to engage in religious and scientific discourse in one’s own mother tongue, the English language hungrily acquired (and anglicized) a swath of Latin terms wholesale. English writers have long played the distinctive properties of Latinate and Germanic words against each other.
In a 1984 essay, historian Jacques Barzun makes the explicit observation that Latinate words tend to be more abstract than even their nearest Germanic equivalents. The English language, he writes, “possesses two vocabularies, nearly parallel, which carry the respective suggestions of abstract and concrete, formal and vernacular. A writer can say concede or give in; assume or take up; deliver or hand over; insert or put in; retreat or fall back.” Indeed, in tracking down the etymology of those 2,000 English nouns, Reilly and his colleagues find that abstract ones tend to be Latinate, while concrete ones have a wider range of etymological origins—most commonly Germanic.
There it is. We have the choice. The only rule is that our readers must understand us, and our selection words must not interfere.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Defanging a cliche

From Orin Hargraves' new book, It's Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés, via Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, we see how to clean up common cliches.

These edits dissolve the clichés, eliminate words, and make the writing stronger. Clichés dull our comprehension. First, the brain has to decipher extra words. Second, because it's seen the cliché a thousand times, the brain gets lazy. They turn crisp writing into slop.

Look for these opportunities to de-slop your writing:

very real
absolutely nothing
generally tend
entirely possible
perfectly normal
general consensus
freely admit
distinct advantage
close proximity
abundantly clear
abject failure
in actual fact
the fact of the matter is
know for a fact
know full well
fully intend
a world of difference
a palpable sense
proven track record
in any way, shape, or form
as a general rule of thumb
more often than not

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How your audience reads your words

Your future reader.
This isn't good news for those who write sentences and paragraphs about serious ideas.

Screens have changed our reading patterns from the linear, left-to-right sequence of years past to a wild skimming and skipping pattern as we hunt for important words and information, Jean Whalen writes.
One 2006 study of the eye movements of 232 people looking at Web pages found they read in an "F" pattern, scanning all the way across the top line of text but only halfway across the next few lines, eventually sliding their eyes down the left side of the page in a vertical movement toward the bottom.

None of this is good for our ability to comprehend deeply, scientists say. Reading text punctuated with links leads to weaker comprehension than reading plain text, several studies have shown. A 2007 study involving 100 people found that a multimedia presentation mixing words, sounds and moving pictures resulted in lower comprehension than reading plain text did.
Ferris Jabr elaborates in Scientific American:
Evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension.
My experience with the instructions business website editors give to writers is that they desire short and punchy copy with copious subheads and lists. It's as though they know their readers don't have much patience for reading.

Do we who dwell in the land of serious, thoughtful business writing yield to this? I think not. However, we might anticipate the divergence of our audience into those who are comfortable with the slow, orderly development of ideas and those who are need listy sound bites. Then plan to please both.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Help your audience stay awake

You tell 'em!
If you stand in front of your audiences and drone on about whatever it is you do, you're in good company.

The "sage onstage" model in education is as old as universities, which got going around 1050, and this approach has generally been in use as long one person thought he knew more than another one and got up to try to prove it.

So that would take in some of your old guys like, say, Aristotle.

However, it's not always the best way. Biologist Scott Freeman of the University of Washington, Seattle, analyzed 225 studies of undergraduate STEM teaching methods.
The meta-analysis concluded that teaching approaches that turned students into active participants rather than passive listeners reduced failure rates and boosted scores on exams by almost one-half a standard deviation. “The change in the failure rates is whopping,” Freeman says. And the exam improvement -- about 6% -- could, for example, “bump a student’s grades from a B– to a B.”
I don't see why this wouldn't apply to a business environment. 
Although there is no single definition of active learning approaches, they include asking students to answer questions by using handheld clickers, calling on individuals or groups randomly, or having students clarify concepts to each other and reach a consensus on an issue.
Freeman says he’s started using such techniques even in large classes. “My introductory biology course has gotten up to 700 students,” he says. “For the ultimate class session -- I don’t say lecture -- I’m showing PowerPoint slides, but everything is a question and I use clickers and random calling."

Fine, but can you skip the PowerPoint.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Will your writing last 100 years?

Held up well.
Most academics spend much of their time writing but aren't as good at it as they should be, Michael C. Munger, chairman of political science at Duke University, says.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, in an article  titled "How To Write Less Badly," he offers some insight that is applicable far beyond the ivy-covered red bricks.

This article pulled me up short. I've been cranking it out for so many years I think I may have lost sight of the reason I got into this game in the first place.

Here he is:
1. Set goals based on output, not input. "I will work for three hours" is a delusion; "I will type three double-spaced pages" is a goal. After you write three pages, do something else. If later in the day you feel like writing some more, great. But if you don't, then at least you wrote something.

2. Find a voice; don't just "get published." James Buchanan won a Nobel in economics in 1986. One of the questions he asks job candidates is: "What are you writing that will be read 10 years from now? What about 100 years from now?" Someone once asked me that question, and it is pretty intimidating. And embarrassing, because most of us don't think that way. We focus on "getting published" as if it had nothing to do with writing about ideas or arguments. Paradoxically, if all you are trying to do is "get published," you may not publish very much. It's easier to write when you're interested in what you're writing about.

3. Give yourself time. Many smart people tell themselves pathetic lies like, "I do my best work at the last minute." Look: It's not true. No one works better under pressure. Sure, you are a smart person. But if you are writing about a profound problem, why would you think that you can make an important contribution off the top of your head in the middle of the night just before the conference?

Writers sit at their desks for hours, wrestling with ideas. They ask questions, talk with other smart people over drinks or dinner, go on long walks. And then write a whole bunch more. Don't worry that what you write is not very good and isn't immediately usable. You get ideas when you write; you don't just write down ideas.

The articles and books that will be read decades from now were written by men and women sitting at a desk and forcing themselves to translate profound ideas into words and then to let those words lead them to even more ideas. Writing can be magic, if you give yourself time, because you can produce in the mind of some other person, distant from you in space or even time, an image of the ideas that exist in only your mind at this one instant.
There's more at the link.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Nothing incorrect in his words

"A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect."

~ Confucius

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Persuading someone to meet with you

As a journalist I have been getting meetings with people for so long I have to stop and think of the techniques I use. It doesn't hurt if you're representing, as I used to be, an international wire service or magazine.

Dorie Clark sums up the rules for being effective:
If you’re asking someone you don’t know for a half-hour, or even 10 minutes, you have to think of your request like you’re making a VC pitch. Why should they speak to you? How can you establish your credibility upfront? How will it benefit them? How can you pack the greatest ROI into the shortest time?
This sounds remarkably like the rules for persuading people in a speech or an article:
  • Understand your audience
  • Know what they need or want
  • Offer it to them
Those people you want to meet? Everyone else wants to meet them, too, meaning you have to give them a reason to see you. They want to know: what's in it for me?

Here's one of those people. Steve Blank is an entrepreneur and academic in Silicon Valley. You can read what he thinks about requests for his time here. The bottom line for him? "Who is offering to teach me something I don’t know?"

So instead of what you want, you have to start with what the other person wants. You have to do your homework. If you don't have anything to offer you might want to rethink your reason for wanting a meeting in the first place.