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Archive for the ‘The Human Condition’ Category

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.

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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 Thought of You the Other Day (DGtC#32)

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Why are some things worth saying?

Next to the sound of your name, nothing grabs your attention like somebody saying they were thinking about you. You listen closely to what comes next because it holds a personality clue.troll-2-20161202

Go on—please continue to tell me what charming character trait/hideous character flaw you thought of.

It turns out the stuff that bubbles up through memory is the most critical content to say to your wife at dinner, or your kids at Christmas. Or your colleague. Interestingly, we remember this thing as we face our person. The reminder pops when your wife/kid/colleague makes that casual remark they always make about that pet topic. And then gears turn deep down in your brain-pan and the reminder careens drunkenly down the thought-chute to your mouth. And you can hardly swallow that bite of House Lo Mein, so tremendous is the pressure to say this thing.

Because you know they will laugh. And it will be a moment—a shared delightful moment.

I’m a note-taker. Constantly writing in books (books I own, mind you). Regularly setting reminders in Evernote. Forever reaching for a scrap to jot something. And I refer to my notes. But increasingly I wonder whether my notes harbor the best topics for conversation. I wonder this for the same reason that school lectures are so very tedious: Hearing from someone’s notes or pre-thought ideas is so boring. The very opposite of remarkable.

It’s the stuff we remember as we sit in conversation that matters most and makes a difference. We take notes and write things down to remember for later, but the most critical stuff bubbles up on its own–that’s the remarkable stuff. Maybe our note-taking has raised the importance and we are more likely to remark.

So by all means make your notes—especially as the holidays bring friends and family you’ve not seen for some time. But remember that the magic happens in the moment of conversation, which is a moment of connection. Chances are good your remark will be different from the note you made.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Why I’ll Vote for Clinton

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What will your vote say?

Here’s what I know 3 days before our vote.note1_0

Republicans:

  • Put forward a hate-mongering, racist, misogynist, [former?] sexual predator whose speech consists largely of bald-faced lies (in one week he spoke an untruth every 3.25 minutes) (PolitiFact truth-o–meter) with no record of public service
    • The Republican candidate has shown little interest in understanding nuanced, global issues and little curiosity for anything beyond his own image.
    • The Republican candidate boasts of bending laws to fit his personal goals and ambitions and promises to jail his political opponent if elected.
    • The Republican candidate demonstrates confusion about the difference between the office of president and the office of absolute monarch. The Republican candidate may think he will be crowned king.
  • Relinquished leadership by standing silently as their candidate uttered fictions and wove lies day by day.
    • Republican leaders hid and then gradually agreed with many of the lies and fictions their candidate uttered.
    • Republicans show deference to the Republican candidate as if he may be crowned king.
  • Spent years obstructing needed legislation, including refusing to vote on a supreme court candidate with bipartisan support.
  • Relinquished the notion of smaller government by agreeing to a far great burden on government spending that their candidate has put forward (“I will build a great wall”).
  • Generally seek to protect the interests of big money over the needs of common people

 

Democrats:

  • Put forward a well-qualified candidate with a lifetime of public service
  • Put forward a candidate whose speech has veered in and out of truth (PolitiFact truth-o–meter), though not to the extent of the Republican candidate.
    • The Clinton Foundation seems to have problems and has been less than transparent
    • Clinton’s mistruths are Foshay-sized compared to Trump’s Burj Khalifa of outright lieslies-20131105
  • The Democratic candidate shows skill in dealing with nuanced global issues
  • The Democratic candidate shows respect for women and the poor and the sojourner.
  • The Democratic candidate has been good friends with big money interests, which is troubling.

There are other candidates, but third-party candidates rarely make a showing in the vote.

 

Litmus-Test Voters

Some reading this will subscribe to the notion that pro-life is the litmus test for voting. And while Trump claims a pro-life stance at the moment, he has held both views at different times (which is true of a great many of his current convictions). Given Trump’s commitment to saying whatever nonsense enters his brain, it is not clear that he will stay with the convictions he currently uses to woo Evangelicals and Catholics.

One question litmus-test voters may ask is whether anti-abortion is truly pro-life. There are many more pieces to consider outside of an abortion procedure, like care for children and funding for women’s health, like our treatment of the poor and the sojourner and the refugee. A consistent pro-life stance will look at systemic roots of poverty and care for people rather than brushing them off as not the job of the government. A consistent pro-life stance would put plans in place for the living as well as the not-yet-living.

 

Voters Holding their Nose while Voting Trump because of Supreme Court Nominees

Some reading this will say they are not so much voting for Trump as they are for the next Supreme Court nominee. To you I say, you are still voting for Trump and saying “Yes!” to the Trump brand of lies/hate/genital-grabbing and bullying. Plus—do you really believe a man who changes his convictions so easily and has zero attention span will remember what he vowed months ago? Seems unlikely.

Bill Maher got it exactly right recently when he described the current evangelical fascination with Trump. After years of saying “character counts,” evangelicals abruptly said character doesn’t count when it’s a guy we want to win. Maher’s charge of hypocrisy is apt and lands squarely where it should.

 

Either-Or Decision

U.S. citizens must make an either-or decision about a leadership question that is far from black and white. I will vote for Clinton because she is qualified and can work with our present system of governance. I am not pro-choice, but I see pro-life as much larger than anti-abortion.

I will not vote for Trump because he is unqualified, demonstrates disrespect for anyone who his not him, proudly retains profound ignorance on a host of issues along with an unwillingness/inability to learn. Trump has demonstrated that he is more than willing to summon hatred and violence to serve his interests in ascending to the monarchy he desires.

 

My Vote Says:

  1. Hillary Clinton will a make positive contribution to our nation’s progress and will be a steady hand at the tiller. I’m not happy about her lies and lack of transparency and big-money connections, but she is able to do the job.
  2. Current Republican methodologies of obstructionism and gross lies and silence in the face of gross lies must be met with a vote against them at every opportunity. And that is my plan.

Commence the hateful rants and disowning/dismembering remarks below.

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Written by kirkistan

November 5, 2016 at 10:18 am

“Nobody is just what you see.”

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Written by kirkistan

October 16, 2016 at 5:00 am

when words fail

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