- Basically, enough already. We’re saturated with top 10 (or top 5) reasons to do something. I don’t know about you, but I’m inundated, and I hardly bother to look at them anymore, unless the headline is unavoidably compelling, which is rare.
- They’ve become the literary equivalent of fast food. Enticing at first but soon completely forgettable. Most are just repurposed aphorisms that have been around, in one form or another, for years. At least say something!
- I understand the need for shortcuts. I know that people have little time to read and digest information and are looking for a simple way “to get it.” But we can still write short and engrossing paragraphs with headlines and other devices to guide the reader and still convey more nuance and depth.
- People remember and respond more deeply to stories. Nothing is better for conveying ideas or key messages than through human-to-human experiences with a beginning, middle and end.
- We remember beautiful and powerfully written quotes more than lists. I bet you can recite a line from Shakespeare or Martin Luther King. But when was the last time you remembered, let alone recited, even half of a top-10 list?
- Many top-10 lists in business try to communicate “best practices” – describing the best techniques or methods used in a company, field or industry. But these “practices” are often just the latest or trendiest, and the best practices of one era can soon be replaced by fads of the next. Even one management change can do the trick. Did someone say, JC Penney?
- Bandwidth. Leverage. Actionable. Business model. Deliverables. Drivers. Ecosystems. Synergies. Best of breed. Granularity. Mission-critical. Critical path. Core competencies. Buy-in. Drill down. Going forward. Matrix. This is the kind of soul-stripping, management-speak often used in top-10 lists. “Only if you have the core competencies will you be able to action the deliverables.” Is this really helpful?
- So, if you just follow the wisdom of the list, you’ll find success, right? Come on! Really? Is anything that simple?
- Do we really need more lists? I can barely get through my to-do list. Oh yeah, pick up the dry cleaning.
- Hmmm. What now? Where’s David Letterman when I need him. Clearly, I need to drill-down on the centers of excellence and the c-suite to leverage best-of-breed thinking and level-set learnings going forward.
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
“A government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country?”
“Mr. Gorbechev, tear down this wall!”
Not a big word among them. Now try to imagine if Winston Churchill’s often-repeated rallying cry during World War II – we have nothing to offer but “blood, toil, tears and sweat” – were replaced with “erythrocytes, exertion, lacrimation and perspiration.” Doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it? And who’d remember that?
Most famous quotations are not full of poly-syllabic Latin or French words for a reason – they’ll mark the author as a pompous blowhard, not an effective communicator.
According to author Ammon Shea, “We seem to be under the impression that a small vocabulary is one of those things, like bad teeth or poor manners, that can hold us back.” That’s why, he says, thousands of books and web sites, many of them commercially successful, promise to absolve us of the sin of a puny vocabulary.
Some of these books, like The Words You Should Know to Sound Smart, claim that learning such words “may even put some money in your pockets.” That’s just nonsense. If words could put money in my pockets I’d be a writer.
Oh wait. I am a writer.
Anyway, I’m not saying you shouldn’t expand your vocabulary. It’s always good to add new words to your arsenal, so you have just the right one for the right context. I also find that learning new words makes my life more interesting, and it may even make me more interesting. OK, maybe not.
Take the word “groak.” It means staring at someone longingly, especially while they eat, perhaps with the hope he or she will give you some food. It may not reward you in any tangible sense, but you’ve got to admit, it’s a cool word to know.
So, it’s not simply the number of words you know, but how you use each one that’s important. And it’s not at all about impressing people, improving your professional prospects or building scholarly achievement.
Here’s the point. Whether you’re writing speeches, blogs, ads or white papers, the goal is to communicate as effectively as possible. You want people to remember the ideas or stories behind the words, not the fact that you used some $10 sesquipedalians (words with many syllables). Today, marketing folks would call it making your ideas “sticky” — a short and perfectly descriptive word with a new use.
Which brings me, unexpectedly, to Abraham Lincoln. With an Oscar-nominated movie and thousands of books about him, no one in American history is more famous. One reason, among many, is his gifts as a writer.
In the book Abraham Lincoln, The Biography of a Writer, the author Fred Kaplan explains that Lincoln knew how to interweave precise language, concise phrasing and logical tightness with a “personal voice that was sincere, colloquial, anecdotal, and humorous, projecting a persona of dignified but amiable authenticity.”
In other words, Lincoln kept it short – even though Kaplan didn’t.
That’s why we remember Lincoln’s words more than any other president’s. He’s the original American master of making ideas sticky.
“My dream is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope on earth.” See, nice and simple. And no big words.
Behaviorist Jen Shang, who specializes in the psychology of giving, has shown in recent studies that words – especially words of kindness – can be very persuasive. From her studies, she says that when some combination of nine adjectives – kind, caring, compassionate, helpful, friendly, fair, hard-working, generous and honest – are included in fundraising solicitations, women increase their giving by an average of 10 percent. Clearly, women strive to be moral.
Men, she says, tend to respond to words like strong, responsible and loyal. I guess gender differences are still more pronounced than I would have suspected, though I would like nothing better than to be considered kind and caring, and I know many men who feel the same way.
And while stark images of starving children or earthquake victims get people’s initial attention and may persuade potential donors to learn more about the crisis, the images do not necessarily encourage giving over the long term.
So, it would seem that words are persuasive, maybe more so than images – which is not a big revelation to someone who writes for a living.
On the other hand, some words are too abstract to get a rise. Words like “environment.” Policymakers and environmentalists have long been frustrated by people who claim to worry about the environment – and consider themselves “environmentalists” – but are unwilling to adjust lifestyles or change their behaviors in any significant way. No surprise here. All I have to do is look in the mirror.
According to Professor Robert B. Cialdini of Arizona State University, that’s because people tend to respond more to the “normative” behaviors of their community than abstractions. Does this suggest, we’re brainless sheep? Maybe.
Here’s an example that many travelers will recognize. When a hotel urges guests to reuse their towels for the sake of the planet, convenience and luxury tend to work against the noble goal. Perhaps the more cynical among us may just see this as the hotel’s way of cutting costs.
Nevertheless, Professor Cialdini’s research has found that the best way to persuade guests to reuse towels is to inform them that a majority of the previous guests in that room did NOT change towels daily. Similarly, in a study to determine how to get people to reduce home energy use, subjects were more likely to comply if they were told that all their neighbors were doing it. Conserving energy to save money or the planet didn’t do the trick.
“People need to be in alignment with their contemporaries,” says the professor. “It validates them. It becomes something they should do and can do.” Perhaps this is why wind turbines in Europe are accepted in counties with high-priced homes, but are resisted like the plague (Not in my backyard!) in the U.S. Variations in the attitudes about community responsibility seem to make the difference. Imagine the differences in the cocktail party chatter in the suburbs of Houston and the suburbs of Amsterdam.
So the word “environment” may be too abstract, but if you bring the subject down to earth, and tie it to a reward of neighborly alignment then, bingo, you get the response you want. Like it or not, most people, essentially, follow the crowd.
Does this mean words aren’t persuasive? Of course they are. It just depends on which ones you choose and how you use them – or whom you pick to string them together. The key is to provide context and connection to other human beings to get the results you want.
No, this isn’t about the enough-already General Petraeus affair. This is about his uniform.
A couple of opinion columns recently focused on how leaders of the U.S. military present themselves these days – relentlessly wearing, for too many occasions, dress uniforms bedecked with the “fruit salad” of ribbons and awards – and the awe they conspicuously inspire from the public and politicians alike.
If you look at photos of General Petraeus and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, you’ll see the difference immediately. Unlike Petraeus, Eisenhower didn’t make his wife Mamie sew the ribbons everywhere. Maybe he figured, in his modest Ike jacket, that most people knew what he was up to – and who he was – without the dazzle. Even his predecessor, Ulysses S. Grant, wore only four stars on his shoulder and nothing else on his uniform. And these were two guys who earned more than a few medals between them.
With Petraeus and his comrades weighed down with bling on every square inch of their uniforms, well, where did our culture of military modesty go? The aw-shucks hero variety we expect.
This lack of modesty speaks volumes. And, oddly, it reminds me of Miles Davis. If Miles’s mid-century trumpet solos can be described by a single phrase, it might be “doing more with less.”
Despite his world fame, Davis wasn’t a flashy or highly technical player. At the height of his genius, the late 1950s and early ’60s, his music was melodic and economical. And in an article by Aaron Gilbreath, “Miles’s approach can teach writers a lot about the power of concision, suggestion and space.”
“Davis showed me how to be affecting without being opaque, lyrical without being verbose,” Gilbreath writes. “Editing imbued each of Davis’s notes with more weight. It also let his melodic lines breathe, an effect that highlighted the depth and strength of his lyricism. No matter the tempo, Davis’s precise, deft touch produced solos whose moods ranged from buoyant to brooding, mournful to sweet.”
Miles showed how measured, uncluttered phrasing increases the impact. His solos “didn’t divert from their emotional center by wowing the audience with speed and facility. With less distraction, the force of his music lands more squarely” to this very day.
Most writers, including many corporate writers, succumb to the “more is better” reflex by packing their sentences with adjectives, fancy descriptions, and winding tangents – trying to impress by saying the same things in different ways, yet with no added insights or poetry. The bling of too many words. With all modesty intended, I’m not one of them. I try hard to whittle down my words as precisely as I can.
What’s the point? Whether you’re a five-star general, a jazz great, a writer, or just a citizen, it’s useful to remember that modesty, and less beating around the bush, can have enormous power. Less is almost always more – except when it comes to lattes and ice cream.
Confusion abounds from the candidates themselves, giving new meaning to the term “Etch-a-Sketch,” a colorful description of the erasing-and-ever-shifting positions of a particular presidential candidate, who shall remain nameless. It’s no wonder that fact checking has become such a valued enterprise, but even this pursuit doesn’t necessarily solve anything, given our understandable desire for simple hooks on which to hang our beliefs.
In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, a linguistics scholar and a marketing professor write: “We typically feel we understand how complex systems work even when our true understanding is superficial. And it is not until we’re asked to explain how such a system works…that we realize how little we actually know.” Yeah, that’s happened to me. You too, I bet.
It’s not productive to have an opinion about an issue we don’t understand, the professors say, calling it “an illusion of knowledge that leads to extremism. We can start to fix it by acknowledging that we know a lot less than we think.”
But anything resembling objective information is difficult to find in the day-to-day media clutter, as people increasingly choose partisan spinners with familiar viewpoints to read or view on their tablets, TVs and phones. Separating fact from fiction is tough, if it’s ever been possible, without stringent editorial standards.
Surely, traditional journalism and non-partisan analysis will continue to be available in some form, whether we go through a search engine or the public library. After all, the word “media” is simply Latin for the way in which information is transmitted.
Poor writing in the public sphere doesn’t help. Years of diluted language from politicians, Super PACs, lawyers, marketers, and corporations have turned the powerful, descriptive sentence into an empty vessel of buzzwords and vapid jargon.
As a corporate writer I see plenty of examples in the business world: “full-service solutions provider,” “cost-effective, end-to-end solutions” and provider of “value-added services.” Google searches find at least 47,000, 95,000 and 600,000 companies, respectively, using these terms to describe themselves.
What does it say when tens of thousands of companies discuss what they do with the same meaningless terms? What company wouldn’t claim to be adding value?
“Would you go to a dinner party and just repeat what the person to the right of you is saying all night long? Would that be interesting to anybody? So why are so many businesses saying the same things at the biggest party on the planet – the marketplace?” says Jason Fried in a funny-but true-article called Why Is Business Writing So Boring?
What can regular folks do about all this? For one thing, we can demand clarity and depth from our representatives and the companies we do business with. We can also help reduce the muddle in our own communications by using specific, declarative and descriptive language in our daily discourse. Let’s resist the temptation to be vague or merely clever!
Instead of saying, for example, “I was proceeding down the street with my dog,” try “I was walking briskly on Maple Avenue with my brown-and-black collie, Sunshine.” Clarity and precision have impact and will more likely be remembered.
In a world of spin, flip-flops and obfuscation, your words are your frontline in everything you do. Are they strong and clear enough? Can you pass the Etch-a-Sketch test?
Metaphors may be a writer’s best tool, primarily because they create a vivid mental picture, sometimes worth more than a thousand words. John McPhee’s description of another writer’s sharp sophistication was described this way: “His words wore spats.” Brilliant. But sometimes metaphors can be misleading and even hurtful, and that’s a huge problem in our political and business landscape.
In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, authors Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer analyzed common metaphors for the economy – how immigrants are the greatest “economic engine” the world has known, and how tax cuts “fuel” the recovery. These metaphors paint a picture of a machine that just needs to be primed and adjusted – a self-enclosed metaphor that is the gospel of market fundamentalists.
The problem: the machine metaphor creates an illusion about how economic forces work. Liu and Hanauer suggest that another framework, another metaphor, is much more accurate. The economy isn’t a machine but a garden, one that “can be fruitful if well tended, but overrun by noxious weeds, if not.” They require fertilizer, water and weeding; gardeners must adapt to seasons and turn the soil.
Politics notwithstanding, the differences between the machine and garden metaphor make a difference in how we view the world and influence people’s thinking. Metaphors matter.
Here’s another example. Are immigrants illegal “aliens” or “undocumented workers”? Again, the difference speaks volumes about our attitudes and how we might address a complicated problem.
In the business world, some people in the railroad industry call train enthusiasts “foamers,” as in foaming at the mouth when they talk about old trains. On Wall Street, a “piker” is a small fish (no explanation needed) and a “Third Avenue guy” is someone who is not smart enough to work for a company with a more upscale address. Here, metaphors reflect dangerous attitudes about customers, the life-blood (metaphor) of any business.
Clearly, metaphors are not neutral – they can devalue as much as add value. Or they can turn into useless jargon (“thinking outside the box”). So we should use them carefully or not at all. Because the more something is like other things, the less it is distinctly itself. And metaphors are never more than approximations.
But used well, they can shed light on a subject (metaphor), create useful mental images that help people grasp a complex idea (metaphor), and lift common prose (metaphor) into something closer to poetry. In writing as in life, metaphors matter.
Still striving for search engine optimization? If you’re a writer, fuhgetaboutit. Since the strong, positive reaction to my lighthearted blog about keywords a few months ago (“A Nobel Prize or a High Google Rating”), the recently announced changes in Google search, which could change the way we write web content, took my smile away, fast.
It turns out the page rankings based on keywords won’t be enough anymore. Google isn’t replacing its current keyword-search system; it’s just becoming more complicated. The company is aiming to provide more “relevant” results by incorporating technology called “semantic search.” The idea is to match search queries with a database containing hundreds of millions of “entities” – people, places and things.
I don’t get it either. But I think Google’s goal is to improve the search-ability of naturally written language. That would be a good thing. And I’m hoping the powers that be will provide more details on how this new semantic search will affect the little people (us).
In case you’ve lived under a rock for the last decade, Google already dominates the Internet search market with about 66 percent market share and more than 75 percent of all search-ad revenue, generating the majority of the company’s annual $37 billion take. And these buckets of money were earned on the strength and ease of keyword-search technology. Not anymore.
What are savvy corporate writers to do? We may have to tailor our prose even more to help us climb the web-page rankings, with all kinds of new “essential” references (people, places and things). But I’m hoping searches based on “naturally written language” means just that. We’ll have to see.
Should we go back to being lemmings? I say, NO. The real answer for writers is right in front of us and has been there all along: continue to write well, SEO be damned. The fight for a high ranking and a nod from the Nobel committee should be based on one requirement — sharp, expressive and spare prose that tells a compelling story or conveys a worthwhile idea.
Let’s win hearts and minds the way they’ve been won for centuries. Let’s write for a human audience, not a database. We’ll sleep better, too.
I’m often asked to write about subjects I know very little about. But with my experience, this ignorance can be a blessing in disguise. Why would ignorance be a blessing? Because I have to ask very basic questions, and that can often uncover compelling new insights or an interesting way to position the “story” for maximum impact. As a professional corporate writer – a keyboard for hire – I get smart quickly by asking good questions.
People in general, and experts in particular, tend to have firm views on various subjects – including a limited set of words to discuss them – and sometimes these views haven’t been questioned in years. With a little honest prying, you might strike gold.
Metaphors like “striking gold” lead me to another reason why ignorance can be a blessing. If good writing is supposed to shed light on a subject, and if the writer is not “an expert,” he or she can help let in the sunlight – and a fresh breeze – by creating interesting and memorable associations. Metaphors. People listen and understand more when metaphors are used. And, by the way, understanding metaphors is one of the characteristics that make us human.
To support this point, subjects in one recent neurological study read metaphors involving texture – which stimulate the sensory cortex, the part of the brain responsible for perceiving texture through touch. Phrases like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He has leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands” did not.
But check out this other study. It turns out that the brain does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life!
When study participants read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball,” their MRI scans revealed activity in the brain’s motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. This means that words describing motion stimulate regions of the brain that are distinct from language-processing areas.
Even more amazing: sentences that described arm movement activated the arm-related part of the motor cortex, and sentences describing leg movement activated the leg-related part of the motor cortex.
Wow. Science is now substantiating the remarkable power of words. And that means a good writer can help you (and your expertise) enlighten and move people – from the inside out.
For me, the point is clear. You don’t have to be an expert to write effectively about a subject. You just have to know the right questions to ask – and maybe have the touch of a poet.
I was just like, ya know, talking to this client about stuff to do with work and she was like really, no way, and my boss couldn’t like handle that, when her boss came into the room and said, “We’re sort of in the sustainability space bringing synergistic value-add to people working in a kind of, ya know, paradigm shift.”
Do you have trouble understanding what people are saying these days? And do you find people in business using vague words with little meaning, without mentioning real people, actions or thoughts?
Heritage languages like N’Ko and Urdu have been threatened for years by urbanization, formal education and technology (though the Internet is now playing a role in preserving them). English, on the other hand, has become more pervasive than ever as the language of international business, yet its vitality is being threatened right here at home.
Keeping it real.
Today we use too many abstractions, not words about real things or clear ideas. For example, every business these days says it can or wants to “exceed customer expectations.” But that doesn’t mean a thing to customers or employees if you don’t say what the expectations are and what you’re going to do to exceed them.
Corporations also want to be known for being innovative, but the word innovation has become meaningless because it’s not often tied to something real. An “innovation in patient care” or an “innovation in automotive design” are abstractions. Have we forgotten how to use the names of real things? If you’ve got a new product that is truly different, then say what it is and explain how it’s different or better. You can only be recognized for innovation if you show HOW you’re innovative. Anyone can just say it.
Companies and industries have their shorthand communications, but acronym-itis has become epidemic. As a corporate writer, I’m asked to attend meetings or events with and for clients, and too often I have no idea what’s being said – until I get some kind of glossary. “We can’t deal with the RPC until our VNBs sit down with KOLs to make sure the STLs are on board.”
Sound familiar? This kind of communication is off-putting and insular. Is that how you want your company to be thought of?
Using razor sharp language.
I found this great example of lazy language in a Harvard Business Review blog on the subject: “You should meet this guy with the SIO. He’s sort of this kind of social entrepreneur thinking outside the box in the sustainability space and working on these ideas around sort of web-based social media, and he’s in a round-two capital raise in the VP space with the people at SVNP.”
It’s pretty funny – and completely ridiculous – but this is how people write and speak. I’m not some old-school English professor – I think English remains vital because it’s always changing. But as a professional corporate writer, I also want to make sure English is vital because it’s precise and beautiful and clear as a bell.
Let’s start by making sense. Be specific with your language and you’ll be understood, appreciated, and more productive. And you won’t have to spend time with someone like me who keeps asking, “What did you just say?”
Here’s my dilemma. A consultant and friend (an expert in SEO) is trying to convince me to start using a bunch of key words regularly and often in my blog – so my name and website will rise to the top of the Google chain. “This is the way to get business online,” she said, matter of factly.
As a reasonably astute entrepreneur and marketer, I’ve known this for quite some time. But if you’re dedicated to, and known for, producing tight, engaging copy – it’s quite the challenge to insert into your lilting prose such charming terms as corporate writer, annual report copywriting, annual report writer, marketing communications writing, corporate newsletter writing, web writer, professional corporate writer, professional speechwriter and, let’s not forget, professional speechwriting.
I do, however, want to increase my profile and reach more prospective clients, so here it goes:
As a respected and professional corporate writer, I have often been perplexed by the lack of good corporate writing. So much of it – whether it’s annual report copywriting, corporate newsletter copywriting, or web writing – lacks depth and compelling storytelling that will resonate with readers.
Besides the talent question, a key problem – which I discuss in the marketing communications writing class I teach at NYU – is that a lot of professional corporate writers don’t do the necessary legwork, like establishing key objectives for their work, or understanding the needs and perspectives of their audience, or tailoring their key messages accordingly. As a result, especially for professional speechwriters who are doing professional speechwriting, the material falls flat.
I’ve learned these lessons from my many years as professional corporate writer, which I have put to use as an annual report copywriter, web writer, corporate newsletter copywriter and professional speechwriter. And let’s not forget my experience in marketing communications writing.
OK, done. Award-winning prose? Nah. But I’ll take comfort in watching my Google profile climb to the top!