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Less Said: Focus Beats Volume

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Hey, You. With the Talking Stick.

In grade school I filled pages with my scrawling, hoping Mrs. Wheeler would search out the best bits and award me the “A.”

First Grade.

It turns out that later in life most casual readers—along with editors and colleagues and bosses and clients and you and (even) me—would rather not read through my brain dump, thank you. Who’s got time to hunt for sensical bits among paragraphs of nonsense?

Sometimes students still send me lots of words even though I put a low limit on the word count. Why did they do that? I suspect it is an old habit that operates in the background. That habit is to keep writing or talking with the hope that something apropos will pop out as they think it through. It’s a holdover from those early school days.

But producing lots of words is also a thing we do with our friends in conversation. That’s how we process life: we talk through the crazy thing that happened on the way home to try to make sense of it. We discharge armies of words to describe and annotate and react, all to make meaning. Some of those words stick and our friend was kind enough to listen and tell us what we just said, so now we know what it meant too.

But when some more formal assignment pops up, less is more. Getting to the point and illustrating it so I can understand the information and the emotion you feel—that’s worth 23 pages of single-spacing, 10 pt. Times New Roman blather. That’s why we sort through our main points and prioritize them and then cut them back again. That’s why we ask what does my audience know and what do I want them to feel? That’s why I create a context they can hear.

First Job.

I set a low word count to force students and clients and myself to hatchet away at all the words and tell what is most important. Tell the one remarkable thing I can remember. That is more than enough.

Last night I went to a modern dance event where at the beginning, in utter silence, the dancer slowly rotated and looked at every member of the audience—it must have taken 90 seconds. It was riveting. The space she created with that slow move wrenched every audience member from whatever hubbub they just came from. She created a space where the audience could (finally/actually/really) hear and see what this troupe would do.

We can create space and context with our words, whether spoken or written if we choose to.

Next time you have the talking stick, do everyone a favor and say only the top three things. Or even only the most critical thing. Then sit down. Even Mrs. Wheeler will give you an “A.”

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Dumb Sketches: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

February 26, 2019 at 9:51 am

Business Writing Can Be Better

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Let’s Worm Backwards to Walk Forward

Our goal is to say or write our idea more clearly.

Along the way we’ve picked up this notion that there might be more to communication than us just delivering thin slices of thought from head to mouth (or pen/keyboard)to our boss’s brainpan. We’re starting to think the process of communication does a bit of turbocharging to the idea and to the people on either end of the idea.

Reopen your own Thoughtfulness Shop to communicate well.

Take It From a Copywriter

That turbocharging is exactly what James Webb Young counted on. Young was an advertising copywriter who lived and wrote in the last century. His goal was to express ideas for money—he marketed products. So old ideas, cliched ideas, worn-out words and weary images—none of that would do. All that dated content was the same as saying, “Let your eyeballs slide past—you’ve seen this before and it doesn’t matter.”

Young held a particular fascination for two phases of pre-writing: preparation and organizing. His love of revision may not have been far behind. He thought new ideas were just recombinations of old ideas, so he did his best to fill his brain with all he could find out about a new product or new project or new assignment. Part of the copywriter’s role in the world is to ask the most elementary questions, because forcing experts to simplify can reveal profound truths. He wanted to know everything, much like British copywriter Tony Brignull.

Asking questions, getting information, and then stripping ideas and combining and recombining ideas and then joining ideas that are impossible to join and then splitting ideas that are fused—all this until exhaustion sets in. And then the walk-away and then, if all goes well, the “Eureka!” Read more in Young’s book A Technique for Producing Ideas.

Why Business Writing Sucks

It’s because writing is not our job. We’re engineers. Or scientists. Or physicians. Or managers. Our job is that noun or verb in our title, not writing. We’re doers, dammit! But we’re also humans, and humans learn by telling and by listening. It’s our time-honored way of becoming less stupid.

But because our work-time is focused on the important stuff of our job, we miss the important stuff of being human together. So we pick words and images from the last decade to express our new idea and then slap them on paper or PowerPoint as quickly as possible to stop the pain of writing. And then we wonder why no one cares and why the boss with the budget won’t listen.

Good communication means digging deep into why something matters. Often that involves self-revelation which also might call forth emotion. These are things humans use to communicate.

Worm Your Way Back into Your Process

To communicate in powerful ways, we must prepare ourselves and our message.

If we expect it to just happen, if we expect to throw-together some presentation, we doom ourselves to ready-made clichés and images, which are guaranteed to be ignored.

Powerful communication means going back to gather information, to ask what we want to accomplish, to think about our audience, to combine old ideas to get new ideas, to worry these ideas on paper until a fresh, revealing communication portal opens.

Along the way, expect a turbocharge that changes the idea, that changes the thinker (you), and might possibly change your relationship with the person at the other end of the conversation.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Persuade Me

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But Not With Your Dumpster Words

Academic journals are near the top of our list for credible sources of information. The work of Retraction Watch (along with Professor Carl Elliot’s snarky Fear and Loathing in Bioethics) has helped me understand that peer-review processes are fallible and can be gamed. Still, the intent of providing transparent work that smart people can discuss seems a solid route to truly reliable knowledge.

Promotional copy is on the other end of the continuum. As a copywriter, I try to use reason and logic to engage readers. And I’ll bring in emotion to tell my client’s story. But I want a discussion, not a manipulative parlor trick. Good copy addresses humans with reason, logic, and emotion that honors our humanness without resorting to manipulation. After all, that’s how humans talk with other humans.

A Continuum of Believability

Further down the continuum of believability is sales talk. It’s the kind of stuff we hear from the used car salesman and telemarketers or our 45th president: “best,” “tremendous,” “today only,” “you’ve never seen anything like this.” These are dumpster words that signify active lying or passive disinformation. You can tell by the lack of specificity. The words are in-credible, that is, not believable and we should turn away from them.

Somewhere in the middle of the continuum of believability are persuasive commentaries and editorials that are biased and meant to convince. Their authors acknowledge their bias straight on and early in their communication. We see their bias and take that into account as we read. Even nearer the middle of the credibility continuum is instructional words that aim to help the reader accomplish something. That’s what my current class is about—helping readers take some action out in the world.

If we are aiming toward credibility in our communication (a typical goal for sane people), we’ll pull from the tools and building-block thoughts that are well-vetted with facts and citations from other credible sources. We’ll also grab from the piles of words that invite further reflection and discussion. The more credible we want to be, the more we’ll direct our typing hands away from the sales talk words, those dead-end, short-circuiting, dumpster words that deceive and misdirect as they are spoken or written.

Smart People Discuss for Credibility

It’s how we sort most everything in life. By talking together about a book or a movie or a social problem or a new idea, we can often get to credible and truthful statements. Statements that we can believe and act on. But to get to that place of belief, we need to think critically about the pop-up slogans and pre-conceived notions that our ideology or brand-preference have placed in our brainpans. If we resist those clichés and talking points and instead look for words from our own experience, no matter how messy or awkward, we have a chance of getting to the truth.

Credible information withstands questions and discussion by smart people. Credibility is a way forward.

I am eager for our culture to develop a taste for credibility.

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Image credits: Kirk Livingston

You hate to write. I get it.

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3 Reasons Humans Should Look Forward to Writing

Writing feels like an interruption.

You’ve got all this work to do and writing a report or summarizing your diagnosis or conclusion takes you away from what you get paid to do. Writing is yet another duty added to a full stack of duties.

But are there things about writing you may have missed? Bear with me while I argue that writing should be an essential part of most jobs that require humans to work at their peak humanness.

TwoChairs-2-20190205

Writing Reason #1: I Get to Reflect

Reflection—that process of slowing to examine something you or someone else has done or said—can have a healing effect. Slowing triggers a meaning-making mindset. You come to better understand things when you step aside to reflect: how your life works. How other people’s words work on your consciousness. Reflection helps you put things in order: just how much authority do I give the troll on Twitter? (Hint: very little). How can I grow as a husband/wife, friend, mother/father/sibling, colleague? These are the kind of human-scale questions that bubble up from reflection.

Reflection via writing is a dialogue with yourself about what is important. It must be so: because you must choose your first word to type. And then you must choose the next word, and then each word that follows. This can be painful, but it becomes less painful with practice. It becomes less painful as we understand that our small dialectical choices are an exploration of who we are. It is an exploration that is wrong, and wrong again, and wrong yet again until it is suddenly right and we ourselves with a fitting set of words.

Reflecting when we write makes us more human.

 

Writing Reason #2: I Did Not Know I Knew That

You’ve been in that odd conversation where a complete stranger asked a question and you convulsed an answer that you did now know you knew. Maybe something about the situation made you reveal a deeply held secret (“I’ve always hated applesauce!”) or a hidden desire (“I’ve always wanted to be a street mime.”). But something moved from a hidden place in your brain to your lips and out into the air. And there it sits between you and this other person. The silence around your declaration makes you think, “Wait—that is exactly right. That’s true!”

Writing does this all the time. By starting a conversation with yourself on paper or screen, your work of filling the paper/screen with neat lines of words has the effect of revealing what you know. It also has the effect of revealing what you don’t know.

I like to ask writing students to start writing when they don’t know nothing. Writing from the vacuum of nothing-knowing triggers curiosity, which is a primary tool for humans to solve problems and connect with other humans. After we choose words that tell what little we know, pertinent questions start to line the road to knowing. And then, if all goes well, our will gets engaged and we start to care. Along the way we discover things we didn’t know we knew. In a month when we read again the paragraph we wrote, we might say, “Huh. Yes. That seems right. I should act on that.”

Dialogue with other humans, even when simulated on paper via writing, is a deeply human activity and a route to knowing.

 

Writing Reason #3: I’ll Just Step Aside. And That Feels Good.

Today we start a class in communication. The class is full of very smart software graduate students. One thing we’ll learn is how to get out of the way of our message.

A lot of our past writing has been about proving to some instructor we know this about that. Our grade depended on this act of persuasion, so we conjured knowledge from bits we heard in class and from readings, and then we made things up. Some of our past business writing has been to convince a boss or executive committee that a certain course of action was necessary. There too we pulled from what we heard, from what we read, and then made things up. Both bouts of past writing had something to do with getting someone to feel a positive vibe toward us. We used our writing to show how smart we were so we could get the grade or promotion or plumb assignment.

But some writing out in the wild benefits from the author getting out of the way. In this class we’re aiming toward writing that is so fast, so easy to digest, that the reader knows new things before they realize they were reading. This is partly because we’re moving toward a post-literate society and reading a block of text is too big a commitment for many of us. We’re also writing this way as an antidote to those classes that taught us to always communicate with a personal, clever, word-garnish. Probably the teachers of those classes didn’t intend that lesson, but that’s what I heard and it stoppered my writing for years.

Getting out of the way to allow a bigger message to accomplish a larger purpose is a mark of human growth. Taking ego out of our writing is an act of love (which sounds strange) and an act of caring. It’s a kind of caring that can show up in our work-world, where there are not so many examples of caring.

Caring is a human thing to do.

Making time to write may just have a humanizing effect on us.

I hope it does.

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Image: Kirk Livingston

I want to write. Am I doomed to be a barista?

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Check out my post at the University of Northwestern.

Written by kirkistan

April 28, 2017 at 4:13 pm

Wes Anderson Christmas Spot

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2 Reasons You Should Watch This:

#1–It’s charming.

#2–See #1

Certainly someone was selling something in there.

Via Adfreak

Written by kirkistan

November 28, 2016 at 9:50 am

Could you be the office TJ?

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The Ladies Love It.

Written by kirkistan

November 10, 2016 at 5:00 am

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