Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Walk, then write

Walking on a Country Road, Valerie Jeanne Frischmann
I  often read through the material I will use to write something for a client and then go for my walk. It's a two-mile trek down a quiet side road, beside which there is a stream for a bit.

The ideas enter the thought scrum in my head and take their lumps. I know my work is better for having walked, although I don't charge for the time. A good bit of the work happens on the road.

Here are some things we know about walking and thinking:
What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.
Moreover, walking in the country is best.
A small but growing collection of studies suggests that spending time in green spaces—gardens, parks, forests—can rejuvenate the mental resources that man-made environments deplete. Psychologists have learned that attention is a limited resource that continually drains throughout the day. A crowded intersection—rife with pedestrians, cars, and billboards—bats our attention around. In contrast, walking past a pond in a park allows our mind to drift casually from one sensory experience to another, from wrinkling water to rustling reeds.
It's said that William Wordsworth—whose poetry is filled with tramps up mountains, through forests, and along public roads—walked as many as a hundred and eighty thousand miles in his lifetime, which comes to an average of six and a half miles a day starting from age five.

Wonder if he charged.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Getting out of Dodge

You probably give more thought to how you start an article or a speech than you do its ending. But you need to think of both, and in nearly all cases they should relate to each other.

Something positive happens in the reader's mind when at the end he encounters a reference to something from the beginning. For some reason, this recognition gives credence to what you have written. Perhaps simply because it's familiar. Perhaps because the reader feels good about himself for having recognized the repetition.

You can do this in a perfunctory way: quote Shakespeare in the beginning and again in the end, for example. That's not going to buy you much.

Better to do it subtly, to give the reader even more satisfaction from seeing what you're doing. So if you begin with a reference to Sherlock Holmes, you can end with terms like sleuth or mystery or clue or put on your cloak to create an echo of the beginning. No need to mention the old boy by name.

But there's more. In a short story or novel, the ending resolves the conflict the hero dealt with. The reader is relieved that it's over. He celebrates with the hero, if, indeed, the knight prevailed over the dragon. The ending is cathartic.

If your piece is more than just a report on second quarter earnings, you are probably dealing with some kind of conflict. If you aren't, look for it. It may well be the conflict between what you know and what your reader doesn't know. You're bringing your reader to a new point of understanding. In the end, you resolve this.

(And maybe you ought to look at those quarterly numbers as a piece of tension to be resolved. They do tell a story, after all.)

You've been making a  case, laying out your evidence, and now you close in for the kill. You tie it all together, and if you do it well the reader has an epiphany, which is pleasurable.

In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln sets up the tension: "But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground."

In the end, he resolves it: "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — 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."

His words leave us with a profound and sacred challenge.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

You need to phone it in

Your brilliance.
I read a wide variety of things at night on my cell phone. It's a Samsung Galaxy III, and I can't wait to update to one of the newer, and larger, models.

I've written on this before, but I was reminded the other day when a friend got the new iPhone 6 Plus, their big boy. It slips easily into his pocket. My son got one, too, and he bought a pretty large case for it, so we all had a good laugh when he pulled it out.

Don't laugh. He isn't.

Our previous inexorable laws were: everything that can be digitized will be, and everything that can go wireless will. Today we have to add: anything can fit on a phone, and it will. And you can lie on the couch to read.

So if you're not thinking mobile, you're already behind. For example, I don't read anything with popup ads, because it's just too difficult on my phone. Oh, I see that little X that will make them go away, but try hitting that with your big old fat finger.

Incredibly, some magazines still don't program their websites to adjust for the phone's small screen size. I don't read those, either.

Some sources I'd like to read are just a mess, and I suspect they're a mess on a regular PC, too. Too many graphics, interspersed with ads and overlaid with popups. I don't go there.

Here's the reality.
  • Among all adult Americans, 56 percent reported using a cell phone and 29 percent reported using a tablet to access news in the last week. ~ American Press Institute
  • US consumers spent over 2 hours 19 minutes a day using mobile phones last year – that excludes making calls – matching PC consumption. ~ mobiForge
  • People are reading books on their phones. ~ ebookfriendly
I'm not thinking about advertising at all. I'm thinking about your thought leadership. I know it's a stretch from the elegant, glossy quarterlies and journals we've known in the paper age. But there it is.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Why your writing doesn't work

Your audience.
Yes, you're guilty -- I'm sure of it. I know, because I'm guilty too, and I do this for a living.

The source of bad writing is your assumption that your reader knows as much as you do. Thus sayeth Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and  chairman of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. He writes in the Wall Street Journal:
Call it the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn't occur to the writer that her readers don't know what she knows—that they haven't mastered the argot of her guild, can't divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn't bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.
Pinker offers three ways to avoid this trap.
How can we lift the curse of knowledge? The traditional advice—always remember the reader over Just trying harder to put yourself in someone else's shoes doesn't make you much more accurate in figuring out what that person knows. But it's a start.

A better way to exorcise the curse of knowledge is to close the loop, as the engineers say, and get a feedback signal from the world of readers—that is, show a draft to some people who are similar to your intended audience and find out whether they can follow it.

Another  way to escape the curse of knowledge is to show a draft to yourself, ideally after enough time has passed that the text is no longer familiar. If you are like me you will find yourself thinking, "What did I mean by that?" or "How does this follow?" or, all too often, "Who wrote this crap?"
But don't go overboard. The curse of knowledge, after all, is job security for us editors.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Bessie the cow on the ladder of abstraction

Bessie dodges the issue.
Paying attention to the length and complexity of words, as I noted here and here, gives your reader a helping hand in understanding you and, if nothing else, staying awake.

Those posts dealt with the origins of English words, those of Latin derivation being longer and more abstract than those of Germanic origin.

Another way to get at this is a concept known as "the ladder of abstraction," a creation of the American linguist S. I. Hayakawa.

Have you ever experienced writers or speakers who:
  • bury you in an avalanche of data without providing the significance?
  • discuss theories and ideals, completely detached from real-world practicalities?
Each of these is at one end of the ladder. Andrew Dlugan, a speech coach, has a good explanation of the ladder on his website here. He illustrates the idea with Hayakawa's example of a cow named Bessie:
  • wealth (most abstract, top of the ladder)
  • assets
  • farm assets
  • livestock
  • cows
  • the cow named Bessie
  • atoms and molecules forming Bessie (most concrete, bottom of the ladder)
Any of these is appropriate, depending on your context. During a presentation or in a piece of writing you should be moving up and down the ladder, Dlugan says.
Audiences need both concrete details and abstract principles and lessons. To make a persuasive argument and establish a powerful rhythm, balance your speech between the two. Move up and down the ladder (and spend some time in the middle, if appropriate), making your message more understandable for the audience at many different levels.
As you edit and rewrite, ask yourself where each word is on the ladder and decide if that's where you want to be at this point. Are you starting with specifics and then drawing a conclusion from them? Are you starting with a big idea and supporting it with details?

To help you remember to do this, keep the image of Bessie on the ladder in your mind. Go ahead, get it out of your mind. Go ahead.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Rot in hell, you lying cheat

My previous post explored Latinate vs Germanic words, the former being generally longer and more complex, and more likely to express abstractions.

Understanding this is critical to effective business writing, and so I want to return to it.

Novelist and marketer Corrine Jackson has written a good piece on this. Anglo-Saxon and Latinate words have a very different sound and feel to them, she writes:
  • concrete
  • shorter
  • guttural/blunt
  • “of the body”
  • feeling words
  • abstract
  • polysyllabic
  • elevated diction
  • “of the mind”
  • thinking words
If you are trying to connect emotionally with a reader or audience, your word selection should veer toward the Germanic. Her example:
“I slept with your best friend,” he said.
“I hope you putrefy in hell, you prevaricating cheat.” she shouted. “I’m glad to be emancipated from you.”
“I slept with your best friend,” he said.
“I hope you rot in hell, you lying cheat.” she shouted. “I’m glad to be free of you.”
I doubt you'll need to express those thoughts in your next white paper, but with this insight you can begin to tailor your message to convey what you intend. As Jackson notes, "Since the reader has to pause and think through the meaning of those multi-syllabic words, you are slowing your reader’s reaction to the scene."

Do you have to know the history of every word? No, but you can see how many syllables a word has and whether it's describing something abstract or concrete.

Check out her list of Germanic and Latinate words here.