What Great Communicators Do

Great communicators eschew vague generalities for specific details. It’s easier to find examples of muddled writing and speaking weighted down with vague generalities than the opposite.

Recently, for example, a New York congressman was asked why he is sponsoring a bill to arm Syrian rebels. “Because,” he said, “doing nothing is a worse option and the United States has to stand for something.” When we use “thing” and its variations, “things”, “something”, “everything”, “anything”, our readers and listeners are stuck playing a maddening and distracting guessing game, wondering exactly what we may have been thinking.

• The United States has to stand for the rights of people anywhere in the world to resist authoritarianism?

• The United States has to stand for commerce anywhere in the world, including arms sales?

• The United States has to stand for any and all approaches of ridding the Middle East of Assad?

Another case in point. A school district curriculum director attempts to explain the Common Core (four minutes long, start at 1:49), but succumbs to vague generalities. She uses the term “content” repeatedly, and “topic”, and “rigor”, and “depth”, but never refers to a specific classroom lesson; consequently, her presentation left me more confused than beforehand. I got excited and perked up at the 1:49 point when she said, “For example in math. . .”, but alas, she continued to torture me with vague references to “content”, “topics”, “content”, “rigor”, “content”, “depth”, “content”.

I would buy her a roundtrip ticket to Hawaii if she would just say, “For example, now when fourth grade teachers teach fractions. . .” or  “For example, now when sixth grade math teachers teach ratios. . .” It’s like craving fruits and vegetables and having to settle for a grilled cheese sandwich on Wonderbread.

Contrast those negative examples with these positive ones. Last week’s George Packer excerpt, which I used to highlight the way he engages readers through unpredictably short, medium, and long sentences, is equally noteworthy for it’s wonderful specificity. Here again is Packer’s nutritious opening sentence:

Amazon is a global superstore, like Walmart. It’s also a hardware manufacturer, like Apple, and a utility, like Con Edison, and a video distributor, like Netflix, and a book publisher, like Random House, and a production studio, like Paramount, and a literary magazine, like The Paris Review, and a grocery deliverer, like FreshDirect, and someday it might be a package service, like U.P.S.

Our congressman and curriculum director might have written, “Amazon is selling everything and getting really big.” Packer takes the time, no doubt through multiple revisions, to explain Amazon’s reach through specific references that even someone like me can easily grasp:

. . . like Walmart, like Apple, like Con Edison, like Netfilix, like Random House, like Paramount, like the Paris Review, like Fresh Direct, like U.P.S.

Your reward, George, is in heaven.

Granted, the writer always has the advantage over the speaker because she can “put every word on trial” over and over. But through repeated practice, we can “think forward”, developing a mental teleprompter of sorts, and learn to speak more clearly by illustrating abstract concepts and insights with specific details.

Consider, Kenny “The Jet” Smith on last week’s edition of the NBA’s brilliant “Inside the NBA”. I dig that show so much sometimes I tape it for the next morning’s indoor cycling session, never the game that precedes it though. It’s worth deconstructing for several reasons, but last week The Jet decided to help out the humble blog with this rumination on the San Antonio Spurs continued success:

It’s the ultimate view of trust. They just trust. That I’m gonna sprint back. If the play on defense is to send the guy baseline, I’m just gonna trust that someone is going to be there. If I run the lane, I trust that I’m gonna get it. If I set the pick. . . If I dribble up the court and I’m Tony Parker I trust that the guy is coming open. It’s the ultimate viewing of what trust in basketball is all about.

The concept of “trust” is about as abstract as they come, but he explained it with repeated, specific examples that made it easy to grasp.

Follow in George’s and The Jet’s footsteps. Your audiences will thank you.

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What Good Writers Do—Alternate Between Short, Medium-sized, and Long Sentences

Props to Nicholas Kristof for rankling the intelligentsia by saying what’s painfully obvious to anyone that’s skimmed an academic journal lately—professors have little influence on public life in large part because they write “gobbledygook”.

There’s a relatively simple way for my colleagues and me and you to improve our writing. By following the lead of jazz musicians and alternating in unpredictable ways between short, medium-sized, and long sentences.

Consider George Packer’s opening sentences in his current New Yorker piece about Amazon.com*:

Amazon is a global superstore, like Walmart. It’s also a hardware manufacturer, like Apple, and a utility, like Con Edison, and a video distributor, like Netflix, and a book publisher, like Random House, and a production studio, like Paramount, and a literary magazine, like The Paris Review, and a grocery deliverer, like FreshDirect, and someday it might be a package service, like U.P.S. Its founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, also owns a major newspaper, the Washington Post.

Short, long, medium. A lot of writers fail to engage readers because they use medium-sized sentences almost exclusively.

Another example from the same piece:

Origins, though, leave lasting marks, and Amazon remains intimately tangled up in books. Few notice if Amazon prices an electronics store out of business (except its staff); but, in the influential, self-conscious world of people who care about reading, Amazon’s unparalleled power generates endless discussion, along with paranoia, resentment, confusion, and yearning. For its part, Amazon continues to expend considerable effort both to dominate this small, fragile market and to win the hearts and minds of readers. To many book professionals, Amazon is a ruthless predator. The company claims to want a more literate world—and it came along when the book world was in distress, offering a vital new source of sales. But then it started asking a lot of personal questions, and it created dependency and harshly exploited its leverage; eventually, the book world realized that Amazon had its house keys and its bank-account number, and wondered if that had been the intention all along.

Short, medium-long, medium, short, medium, long. No identifiable pattern. Which is what we should replicate.

Shame on me for concluding with three short sentences. Follow Packer’s lead, not mine. Make that five sentences. Now six.

* I highly recommend the Packer piece which I’m only halfway through.

Thank You

Most bloggers, like most people, are motivated by social status and wealth. I get contacted all the time by bloggers who want to teach me how to monetize my blog in three easy steps.

I write because we are social beings and writing is one especially beautiful way to deepen relationships and create lasting community. Like the wannabe Stoic that I am, I try to write twice a week immune to the humble blog’s statistics. But I’m only partially successful. I like peeking at the changing number of visitors  and where all over the world readers live. Truth be told, even worse, my blogging enthusiasm ebbs and flows in part based on the vagaries of your reading preferences.

Thank you for visiting this calendar year. I wish it didn’t matter, but it does. Thanks to everyone that took time to comment through the year. And thanks to Don for being my editor extraordinaire. And most importantly, thanks to everyone who is able to tell me in person that they have read a recent post. That’s the most positive encouragement I receive. It’s one thing to look at a bar graph with “page views”, it’s a whole different thing to see individuals behind the numbers. I wish my motivation was completely intrinsic, but I imagine that will remain an elusive ideal. Your participation matters, so thank you.

My goal for 2014 is to stay the course, by which I mean share insights about families, schools, and communities that illuminate and inspire. I hope you achieve whatever is most important to you and yours in 2014.

I was going to recreate this vid, but I couldn’t find a tutu that would fit or a white horse. God bless the carnies.

Salinger Documentary (2013)

A bevy of blockbuster movies are premiering, but I recommend an under the radar mindbuster. Salinger is an intriguing meditation on literary genius, fame, privacy, and mental illness.

About midway through the lengthy documentary, I became convinced that Salinger was mentally ill. The filmmakers convincingly argue that his WWII military service had an indelible impact on his psyche and his writing. If he knew what the first 48 hours on the ground would have been like, June 6-7, 1944, I wonder if he would have volunteered. He was fortunate to survive the first two days. 

Salinger’s was not a dangerous or violent mental illness. The truth be told, no one is “normal”, most of us suffer from mental abnormalities or quirks of some sort. Salinger’s imaginary characters and families took precedence over his living, breathing family and friends. He only harmed people who competed with his imaginary characters for his attention. When they interfered too much, he banished them from his life.

One form our mental illness takes is thinking accomplished artists or athletes owe us more than their art or public performances. Oddly, more and more people are following public figures on Twitter. Receiving tweets directly from celebrities seemingly deludes people into thinking they’re in some sort of relationship with them. After reading The Catcher in the Rye, many people so identified with Holden Caulfied they felt entitled to know everything possible about his creator. Sometimes to the point where they’d drive to rural New Hampshire and knock on Salinger’s door.

Maybe because people are so desperate for notoriety, they’re offended when someone like Salinger consciously rejects fame. Salinger practiced Zen Buddhism for many years and became an adherent of religious teacher Sri Ramakrishna and Vedanta Hinduism. Fame was another intolerable distraction from the imaginary, literary world he greatly preferred.

How should we live with present and future Salingers, single-minded geniuses whose work isn’t just the most important thing in their life, but the only thing? By leaving them mostly alone to write, to compose music, to draw, to sculpt, to fulfill their specific life purpose.

One additional thought. It was fortunate that Salinger never needed to teach writing at a University because he never could have controlled his affinity for women decades younger than him. He would have kept a few university attorneys employed all by himself.

Write Like Lincoln

Like all writers, my writing students struggle with vagueness and wordiness. Inevitably, wordiness is built into our initial drafts because they reflect our speech, and when we speak, we routinely spin our wheels.

As we eliminate written words that don’t contribute to phrases, phrases that don’t contribute to sentences, sentences that don’t contribute to paragraphs, and paragraphs that don’t contribute to the whole, our ideas get traction, and readers better understand what we’re communicating.

In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln, in ways that people still marvel at, only needed 270 words and just over two minutes to reiterate the principles of human equality espoused in the Declaration of Independence, proclaim the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union, and espouse the principle of human equality for all citizens.

Wordiness is a by-product of laziness. Seven score and ten years ago, it would have been far easier and quicker for Lincoln to write a longer address.

If one of the greatest speeches in U.S. history is the length of this post*, why do I routinely take two or three times as many words to communicate much less lofty things? Because I don’t always make time to, as one Kalispell Montana high school English teacher puts it, “put every word on trial.”

Word limits, whether imposed by one’s self or others, are one of the best ways to learn to write more concisely. Once we learn to write more concisely, we can turn our attention to vagueness. I’d elaborate on that challenge, but I’m out of words.

* a tribute to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, this post is exactly 270 words

What College Writing Students Get Wrong

Recently, I did a mid-semester check of how things are going in the first year writing seminars. I asked my students to complete the following phrases: I like. . . . I’ve learned. . . . I wish. . . . Things seemed to be going well, so it was nice that most of their feedback was positive.

About one-fifth of them said something to the effect of “I wish it was clearer what you want”. My syllabus is detailed, and I think, quite clear. The writing prompts too. And I teach what my colleagues and I hope to see in student writing. But sometimes I also say, “There’s more than one way to do well on this paper.” And this annoys some of them who want me to cut to the chase and tell them the one way to be successful. You’ve heard of “paint by numbers”, some students want to “write by numbers”.

The students most disappointed with what they earned on their first two papers are the ones most prone to say,”Just tell me what you want so I can give it to you.” The irony is, by thinking that it’s far less likely they’ll succeed on future papers. Why? Because excellent student writers embrace complexity and delve into the subtleties, nuances, and ambiguity inherent in most every topic.

I wish every high school teacher in the country taught writing by plastering this equation all over their rooms and schools—subtleties+nuances+ambiguity=complexity. The more complex one’s ideas, the more imperative it is that they communicate them clearly. So the challenge for writers is two-fold—1) to embrace subtleties, nuances, and ambiguity to the point that interesting insights bubble up, and 2) to clearly communicate those complex insights in writing.

The first of those challenges requires repeated close readings of other writers who embrace complexity. Discussing ideas with others equally or slightly more adept at critical thinking helps immensely too. The second challenge requires learning how to illustrate complex insights with specific examples.

Every first year college student struggles with both of these intellectual challenges to widely varying degrees. Some get it very early in the semester, others struggle with both until the semester’s very end. Those who struggle the most think the second challenge is most important and they’re convinced they’d turn their “C’s” into “B’s” if their professors would just describe the required formulas more explicitly.

In actuality though, the first challenge is most important. Until students learn to embrace complexity and communicate complex insights clearly, there’s not an explicit writing formula in the world that will help them engage, inform, or move readers.

Minimize End-of-Life Regrets

Writing faculty at my university get to choose their own seminar themes. When I chose “The Art of Living” for my first year writing seminar a few years ago, I wasn’t sure how it would go. Was I crazy to think that eighteen and nineteen year olds might find Epicurus, Seneca, and Stoicism almost as interesting as me?

I knew very few of their K-12 teachers had asked them to think about what they most want out of life. And psychologists say they have a sense of immortality. Why bother with how to live if you’re going to live forever?

One month in, I’m happy to report, they’re actively engaging with the reading material (primarily William Irvine’s The Guide to the Good Life and Roman Krznaric’s The Wonderbox) and one another. I love how comfortable they are disagreeing with our authors and one another. My greatest challenge is staying out of their way.

Some have experienced loss—one’s mother died a few years ago from breast cancer, another’s from a heart attack, and still another travelled to Winnipeg last week to attend her aunt’s funeral.

The first unit was on “philosophies of life”. More specifically, I asked the students to agree or disagree with Irvine’s thesis that to avoid major end-of-life regrets, everyone needs to have a grand goal of living and specific strategies to achieve the goal. Irvine argues most people have regrets at the end of their life because their primary pursuits—wealth, social status, and pleasure—are in the end, unfulfilling. His grand goal of living is to maximize tranquility and joy by reviving Stoicism for the modern era. Few people experience much tranquility, Irvine argues, because materialism, social status, and pleasure conspire against it.

The larger question we’ve grappled with is how intentional should we be in our day-to-day lives? What role, if any, should spontaneity and serendipity play? What’s the right balance?

The students fell evenly across the “intentionality/spontaneity” continuum, some quite certain that people need life goals, and associated philosophies with specific strategies for achieving them. Others pushed back saying, “Are you kidding? How can anyone expect people with our limited life experience to put forward grand goals for living let alone specific strategies for achieving them?” They thoughtfully argued that life would present unforeseen struggles and opportunities. For example, one said she never would’ve have fallen in love with French if she had been correctly placed in the middle or high school Spanish class for which she had actually registered.

When some of them argued for intentionality, I couldn’t help but think they’d have to recalibrate their specific goals and strategies (for example, to have a large loving family) if and when they commit to a life a partner with their somewhat different visions of the future.

What about your life? According to Irvine, your life is most likely an argument for spontaneity because our culture offers us an “endless stream of distractions” that keeps us from clearly identifying, and planning how to accomplish, what we most want out of life.

Be less distracted this week, and thanks, as always, for reading.

Merkel’s Favorite English Language Curse Word

From the BBC:

Germany’s standard dictionary has included a vulgar English term, used by Chancellor Angela Merkel among others, as an acceptable German word.

Duden, the equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary in the UK, said it was reflecting the common use of the word “shitstorm” among Germans.

The word, which is used in German to denote a public outcry, seems to have caught on during the eurozone crisis.

German language experts voted it “Anglicism of the year” in 2012.

One of them, Michael Mann, explained in that the English word conveyed a “new kind of protest… clearly different in kind and degree from what could be expected in the past in response to a statement or action”.

In the past there have been controversies over German usage of words like “download”, “job-hopping” or “eye-catcher”.

The new word has crept into the language, imported by people who heard its use primarily in American English, he says.

It is used by the highest and lowest in the land and when Chancellor Merkel used it at a public meeting, nobody batted an eyelid, our correspondent adds.

Thanks Angela. I now feel freed up to use it liberally.

• I didn’t expect my suggestion that we have veggie burgers for dinner to cause such a shitstorm.

• Temps in the 90s always create a shitstorm in Washington State.

• “What a shitstorm of a season,” said dejected M fans after watching their team lose two of three to the Cubbies.

• “This year’s Wimbledon is a complete shitstorm of a tournament,” said the television executive.

• “All engineers. . . oh wait, I don’t want to cause another shitstorm.”

Bonus points for using it in a comment.

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Television Highs and Lows

Watching television comes with obvious opportunity costs. You’re (usually) not burning calories, getting to know real live human begins better, or (usually) learning much.

Despite those downsides, I agree with a lot of critics that the quality of television content has never been higher. Especially with Netflix and other similar portals, there are a lot of good shows—past and present—to choose among.

Here’s the Television Writers Guild of America list of the best 101 written television shows of all time. And from that list, here are the top ten shows currently airing new episodes:

7) Mad Men

11) The Simpsons (one more season left)

13) Breaking Bad

16) Arrested Development (resurrected by Netflix)

17) The Daily Show

25) Saturday Night Live

34) Modern Family

40) Game of Thrones

43) Downton Abbey

48) Homeland

And, let’s not forget, a particularly excellent one just wrapped—21) 30 Rock.

The digital video recorder has transformed my viewing experience by making commercials obsolete. Thursday night I tried watching the start of the NBA finals, but the major network showed about fifteen to twenty minutes of commercials right before the tip. It was brutal. So I channel surfed until the game started. I often record sports events and then begin watching them an hour or so later without commercials, without timeouts, without incessant video replays, and even without inconsequential action (like huddles, lining up putts, even walking the ball up the court). When timed perfectly, I finish the tape just as the event is ending in real time. Mad skills.

The rewind feature of the modern DVR is also sups cool. I was floored by Julia Dale‘s rendition of the National Anthem before game 1 of the NBA finals last Thursday night. “Come here and watch this,” I yelled to peeps in the kitchen. Then rewound it for a second viewing. My second favorite performance of the Anthem after Marvin Gaye’s which I was lucky enough to experience live.

Of course there are ways television could be improved. If people stopped watching “reality” shows and the cable “news” circus, they’d go away. More aggravating to me, is some shows gratuitous use of the “f” word and penchant for glorifying drinking.

I’ve been a fan of Julia Louis-Dreyfus since she first started shoving Jerry in the chest on Seinfeld, so recently I gave her Home Box Office series Veep a whirl, in which she plays the Vice President of the U.S. Let’s just say the cute, spunky, chest shoving Elaine of Seinfeld is long gone. In her place is an insecure, foulmouthed, unlikable character. I don’t think of swearing in terms of moral failure. Ever since teaching high school, I’ve been unfazed by profanity. But I don’t like it when it’s forced and exaggerated. I counted 38 “f-bombs” in two consecutive 25 minute episodes. I find it hard to believe that Joe Biden and his staff use the f-word in semi-public nearly once per minute (Rahm Emmanuel maybe).

When a wise guy on Soprano’s or a Jonathan Franzen character lets it rip it adds to the story’s believability, but when the first female vice president or her staffers swear every minute (f-bombs plus more run of the mill profanities), things fall apart. HBO suits must think their success is the result of their characters saying things that characters on the major networks cannot. But it’s not. It’s based upon interesting story lines and strong character development that gritty language sometimes contributes to. Note to HBO, the swearing is an authentic and artistic means to an end, not an end itself.

Then there’s Zooey Deschanel’s show, New Girl, which takes moral irresponsibility to new levels. Like Veep it’s a clever, even funny show, with amusing characters who play their parts well. It’s target audience is probably my 18 and 21 year old daughters. The characters are 30, but in a Seinfeld-like manner, are stuck in a perpetual sex and drinking college-like vortex. In the hands of the shows writers and producers, drinking heavily is both fun and funny. I challenge you to identify one entire 22 minute episode of New Girls that that doesn’t glorify excessive drinking and/or random premarital sex. It’s a shame that responsibility and moderation do not attract as many eyeballs.

You and I would probably be better off with Amish romance novels.

Twitter is Like a Very Large Dinner Table

Facebook seems to thrive on nostalgia for the past. I like Twitter because it’s present tense in orientation.

Twitter is like sitting around a very large dinner table with guests you get to choose. I have little interest in faux, electronic, celebrity friendships. I choose guests who 1) make me laugh on occasion; 2) keep me informed about things I care about; and/or 3) share links to articles and videos about things I care about. Those I follow sit around the table and slide reading and multimedia material to one another saying, “Have you read or seen this?”

Sometimes Bill Simmons at ESPN, Alan Shipnuck at Sports Illustrated (golf writer), and John Dickerson at Slate can be funny. Among a few others, I follow Slate Magazine, the Atlantic Magazine, The Economist, Bonnie Ford, Atul Gwande, Walt Mossberg, and some of the bloggers I regularly read.

Most people think of Twitter success in terms of followers, the more the better. I’m more interested in the quality of the dinner conversation than the quantity of guests. And some people think the secret to more followers is to tweet more often. For me though, the more you tweet the more you have to make me laugh or keep me informed. If you tweet just because you like the sound of your tweets, you’ll soon join the ranks of former dinner guests.

Speaking of laughter, this skit is comic genius.