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Louis L’Amour and Writing for Life from Life

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My new dead friend teaches on knowing

I do not read westerns, typically.

But Mrs. Kirkistan, with her eclectic tastes, put L’Amour’s autobiography into my [sweaty] hand. Education of a Wandering Man is a revelation.

Two things right away:

  1. L’Amour was an autodidact like few others. He had little formal education—he quit school at 15 to travel. His real education started with knocking about as merchant marine, going to war, wrangling cattle, going hungry between jobs, boxing—and reading. Especially reading. L’Amour’s hunger to know is infectious.
  2. L’Amour’s hard-knocks education contributed to his readable writing. That’s my hypothesis: life experience makes for more readable writing. And vice versa.

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L’Amour’s life (1908-1988) seems a rebuke to the supposed schism between “academic” and “practical.” If you read Education of a Wandering Man (and I hope you will) you will find an articulate man who read widely and used very approachable language to package his thoughts. But it wasn’t just easy-to-read language that was his genius; it was the layering of language into a story. L’Amour is a storyteller who is hard to resist.

His is not academic writing, of course. But it is thoughtful writing—especially when you find out what he was reading when he wrote. His simple stories start to go deep.

In his autobiography L’Amour named the books that had been influential for him. There are scores of them—73-120 books per year, from 1930 to 1937—and he named them one by one. But these are not the books listed on a college syllabus (though some are, to be sure). From Voltaire to Nietzsche to Schopenhauer to Mann to O’Neill to Joseph Conrad And lots and lots of fiction These are the books that piqued his interest as he lived his life. And that is how his autobiography is organized: the books he read while he was living this or that particular chapter. Reading about the West as he worked on cattle ranches Reading Nietzsche and Schopenhauer as he boxed. Reading ancient myths and stories as he sailed. Reading about the West later as he wrote frontier stories. (I may be off in the details about when he read what—there were so many mentions and so many chapters in the guy’s life).

 

Education Not a Given

One thing that stands out is the focus of his education. It was not to acquire a degree. It was to move forward with what he was intended to do—as best he understood.

Stay with me here: L’Amour read to see how stories worked.

Yes, he got lost in books. Yes, he loved learning. But his learning was always aimed at assembling an image of how the world worked. He was of a time when many readers were doing the same thing, because education was not as available as it is today. But there were books.

Here’s the point: L’Amour told stories, and all his philosophical thinking about life is bound up in the stories. He is not pedantic (at least in this book), but thoughts about life roll out of the characters in the stories. This is a revelation because much of our education (and my education) are all about pedantics: laying lesson out in neat arguments. One could memorize these arguments. In fact, you have to memorize them because they slip away the moment you turn your eyes. That’s because they are not moored in the emotion of real life.

L’Amour, on the other hand, had stories pop out of him of all sort of real (ish) people doing real things in life because of their underlying beliefs.

 

Oral and Writing Should Talk

The big revelation that L’Amour gave me was that precisely because he was educated by stories and for stories (he had to captivate audiences again and again in the different chapters of his life), his writing fit quite naturally into an oral rhythm. No big words. No long sentences. Ideas were easy to remember because he wrote them with stories, and we remember what that philosophy looks like without the pedantics.

Because of L’Amour’s example, and because of my own failures (plus a few minor successes) with communicating and expressing detail, I’m starting to move toward copy that can be said. I’ve always advised copywriting students to read their sentences aloud to see if they make sense. In the end, it’s quite possible that what we hear and what we gather from what we hear, is the standard for engaging another person, as well as the standard for knowing anything.

Knowing seems to pass through our mouths, in particular.

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3 Ways to Strengthen Your Next Think-Piece

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Leadership is an emotional action storyStairs-2-story-20160713

Most of my clients see themselves as thought-leaders. These clients really are leaders in their industries: their scientists and engineers labor to create new ways of approaching old markets even as they open new markets. A think-piece is an outward-facing story of their leadership in the light of a market problem or need.

Some clients assume their brochures and web copy can be repurposed into a think-piece. One of my tasks is to help them understand that a think-piece takes a position on a problem, spins out a story that shows the problem resolved in an emotionally satisfying way. That is typically a larger frame of reference than their current brochure or web copy.

Other clients want to say something without revealing anything. They worry about competition in their tight market. But they don’t realize how a generous spirit is another kind of selling (especially in this sharing economy), and giving something-not-everything away is a mark of true leadership. But it’s just too big a task (they say) and it will “only distract our scientists and engineers.”

Sharp clients understand that thought-leadership presents a story that is immediately recognizable, universally understood (by their target audience) and easy to digest. They also understand that the best stories carry a useful thought with an emotional element.

My favorite thought-pieces typically have these three elements:

  1. Story: A story is threaded together with real people doing real things. There is emotion in a story—just like life—and real people talk in human rather than PR speak. Real people with real problems that unlock real emotion both before and after the solution appears.
  2. Visual: There’s no question that words simply take too long for most of us. We still read, of course, but our short attention spans move us toward images and video. Some say visual is the primary way social media will present in coming years. We can put that visual bias to work today with words that paint pictures. That has always been the novelist’s forte: creating scenes. That ability must find a home in today’s think-pieces. Gone are the days when an interested audience member might happily read your brochure. Now you have to catch them when they are not looking or thinking about your product or industry. This is not an easy task, but the more visual the better. Visual also has the advantage of being immediately understood.
  3. Speak Human: Every discipline has its own secret words. Every industry uses lingo and code words to show they know their stuff as well as out of sheer laziness. It’s just easier to say the same things as everyone else. Plus it’s a badge of the tribe, so why wouldn’t you? But insider language is inherently toxic for anyone outside. It’s a buzz kill for an outsider looking in. Speaking human means words cleansed of jargon, words that can shine through a clear story.

The best think-pieces don’t appear to be think-pieces at all. They can be read so effortlessly that we take every step with the author to the intended conclusion. And we find ourselves happy to be there, taking action with the hero.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Is it Better to Sound Smart or to Communicate?

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Please stop me before I commit an act of literature.

We had this discussion in class. A literature student was talking about how writing for social media was different than, say, literature. Popular writing—so our discussion went—is aimed at a different audience (here we picked our way around classist terms), and is not as, well, interesting, as literature. All her other classes required a compacting of ideas into sentences that grew rather long. Sentences that required a fair amount of attention. Sentences that required grappling with theologically heavy terms, or the whimsy of philosophers who felt compelled to make up words for their new ideas. Or writers who committed acts of literature in the most tortured fashion.

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I maintain that writing for social media requires that we let go of jargon and the complex sentences that shout “College!” or “Graduate School!” At our best, our writing is nearly transparent: leading right into the topic without stopping to say “Look at me.” Does that mean we use dumbed down ideas and language? I’ve said no to this several times. Erasing our jargon so smart people from different disciplines can understand us is not the same as dumbing down. And, in fact, when we do the work of translating our tribe’s jargon into regular English, we are poised to find a certain elegance and cadence that sounds more human, more fresh and less like the forced and predictable tribal language.

Respecting the reader is central to this project of communication—this bridge-building activity. If you think the reader is an arse, that comes through in your word choice. If you think the reader cannot be trusted, that shows. If you think the reader is intelligent and can handle the topic in words any human would understand, your reader will know.

One irony of the discussion is that many of the writers we celebrate as having written literature were themselves seeking for the simplest way to say things. Countless writers talk about kill your darlings and omit needless words and how nearly anyone can write to confuse. But the real artist takes a meaningful notion and makes it clear to someone else. And this: we are more likely to say something memorable and possibly even elegant the farther we get from our tribe’s insider language.

Will you commit an act of communication today?

 

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

How to be an Object of Pity

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Hint: Grow a gray beard and present folding-money

Twice now young women have bought me coffee at the coffee shop on the campus where I teach. Just standing in line like everyone else—minding my own business—I pull out my $2 (cash-money) and the young woman in line behind me says, “Just put it on my card.”

I resist: “No! I wouldn’t hear of it,” I say. “You can’t. You must look after yourself with that—or at least spend it on your friends.”

I went on in that vein, until the cashier reached past my $2 (cash-money) for the woman’s card.

“She’s not going to spend it all anyway,” said the cashier, repeating what the woman said.

So. Free coffee. Thanks profusely offered.

Yesterday: same thing. I pull out my $2 (cash-money) and the young woman behind me says, “Just put it on my card.”

I resisted. This time with less velocity. Free coffee. Thanks profusely offered.

WPRMug-2-03022013I’ve puzzled over this phenomenon. What I know for certain is that the students here are some of the kindest people you’d ever hope to meet. And earnest. Looking around I also see that I have landed from the planet “old guy.” Though I know even recent grads feel that way when revisiting their alma mater. Still, it’s been a long time since I was an undergrad.

But I think it’s the folding money that triggers the pity. What kind of a person uses cash-money on campus? Clearly someone in need and, frankly a bit out-of-touch. We all use cards.

You must not be from around here.

“Let me help you.”

The other day a student reflected on her community-building work in our social media marketing class:

“It’s also important to create a presence that encourages interaction,” she said.

I can’t get her comment out of my mind, partly because of getting two free coffees and partly because of the riddle of how to write in a slightly-unfinished, slightly-needy way. columbo1-20160205Like how Columbo conducted investigations: you pity the unkempt, needy fellow until you realize he is canny like a fox.

I’ve long puzzled over the magnetism of a dumb sketch. Stepping up to the white board and drawing something badly as a way of explaining an idea is a sure-fire way to invite others in. And they step up—not to correct, just to collaborate.PlaceByRiver-2-20160121 Because it’s sorta fun to draw badly and without the pressure to create art. And it can be fun to think together. And, like presenting folding-money in debit card economy, you clearly need help.

What are you willing to leave unfinished to draw others in?

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston, The-Toast.Net

Stephen Fry’s Voice Serving Heathrow

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Please speak human

Copywriters try to harness voice to say their client’s message. There’s lots of talk about being on brand these days, and for copywriters that means speaking in the voice of the brand. But voice must always be human to be heard. That’s why press releases and spokespeople are so easily dismissed—they generally don’t sound human.

John Cleese felt he could perform Basil Fawlty for Specsavers because the voice they wanted was true to the character he had created. He had refused many opportunities because unfunny scripts deviated from that character.

Check out how Stephen Fry voices a gentle, unhurried, humorous take on a place that launches an airplane every 45 seconds.

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Via Ads of the World

Written by kirkistan

January 14, 2016 at 8:07 am

Words Build Stuff Between Us

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Words destroy stuff we’ve built

We all know this, don’t we? It’s perfectly obvious.

If words were money (words are definitely not money), we would be aware of our spending to inform or persuade or entertain. And just like people who make a hobby of “going shopping,” spending our word budget every day would be just another normal piece of everyday life for a U.S. citizen (or “consumer,” as business has renamed humans).

And that is actually how words work: We spend them.

With words we buy influence. We give some bit of knowledge or direction to someone else and win something in return. Some bit of psychic collateral. With words we buy context: we proclaim this or that in response to a situation at home or at work. Sometimes those around us agree with our context-setting assessment. Sometimes they don’t. Hint: if you want more people to agree with you, become the boss. Authority has a way of bringing believability with it, whether or not it is earned.

How we spend our words is worth thinking about. For many of us conversation seems instinctual. We say this in response to that. We inform, persuade, entertain with a joke. We do most of this without making conscious choices about our wordly-intentions.

But what if we did think of how we spend our words? What if we invested our words to accomplish some end? What if we invested our words with meaning—which is to say, what if we said things that were pulled from the well of what is important to us? That would make us vulnerable, of course. It would also be a platform for growth. Because when we say what is important, we learn something about ourselves and often a meaningful conversation can follow. The kind of conversation that has a chance of touching us deeply.

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If you’ve not read Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), now is a good time. Tavris and Aronson have been referred to frequently as the Rolling Stone article on rape at the University of Virginia and news reader Brian Williams were found to have amped up their stories beyond anything resembling truth. Tavris and Aronson talk about cognitive dissonance and how we have such a hard time living with ourselves when our inconsistencies and personal malpractices appear—so we just change the story to coddle our precious psyches. The authors also demonstrate how memory gets built and rebuilt as we change stories:

Memories create our stories, but our stories also create our memories. Once we have a narrative, we shape our memories to fit into it.

–Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc, 2007) 77

I am advocating for conscious use of words, and for filling those words with stuff that is important to us—scary as that is. I see this as the opposite of small talk. I do, however, acknowledge that small talk is the precursor to big talk.

In my dream world, we use words to constantly build stuff between us rather than destroying relationships by purposely misunderstanding and showing we are better/righter/fitter/stronger/groovier.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

God-Talk and Other BS

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Do Communication and Spirituality Connect?

I say “Yes.”

And I say it manifests in the ordinary conversations of everyday life.

Let me prove it: deep down in your brain-pan, where you instantly recoil from people who snap at you; back down there where your inner child says snarky, politically incorrect, frankly obscene, stuff that your adult, outer-self edits and translates to “Hmm. I see….”

Deep down there in the hidden recesses—that’s part of the connection.

Your immediate responses to the stuff of everyday life can tip you off that things are not right—deep down in the soul. Yes—I’m talking about weird stuff. But you have an inner life, right? A place where no one visits but you.

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If that inner place is full of doubt, while your outer self—the adult self in tie and loafers, who edits and translates the inner child’s voice so the rest of the world remains unaware what a low-life that kid is—if that outer self proclaims stable faith in God and corporation and the upright institutions (ha ha) that surround us—that’s where the cognitive dissonance starts. That’s the precise locus of hypocrisy.

Mind you: I’m big on doubt. Questions are good. Questioning institutions and the quick answers to life’s hard questions—I’m all for that. Talking unbelief to God makes perfect sense to me (Just read Job, my patron saint of doubt honestly-processed).

It’s the saying one thing while believing another I’m not for. It is that very place where God-talk becomes BS. And I believe most of us have sixth-sense/BS detector that goes off when outer words don’t match inner life—even if we cannot put our finger on exactly why. I am most certainly talking to myself here as well.

We need to process our bouts of cognitive dissonance together to keep our God-talk from becoming BS—rudderless words without the ballast of belief and action a life-lived.

If you don’t have a friend to be honest with, find one.

This is important.

Today is Good Friday—a day when the Christian Church celebrates (is that even the right word?) Jesus’ death. Three days later we celebrate that this dead guy is dead no longer.

I appreciate this time of year for processing doubts together with others. Quite often we come away rejoicing. And somehow more whole.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

By the way: I’ve written ListenTalk: Is Conversation an Act of God? to explore this connection. Pre-order here.

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