Monday, August 30, 2010

Dale Carnegie explains how empathy helps writers connect with their readers

Author and lecturer Dale Carnegie (1888–1955) frequently discussed empathy in his self-development books and courses.

For example, in his bestseller* How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), he quoted Henry Ford: “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”

Mr. Carnegie commented, “That is so simple, so obvious, that anyone ought to see the truth of it at a glance; yet 90 percent of the people on this earth ignore it 90 percent of the time.”

As an example of ignoring empathy, he analyzed a letter from an advertising agency executive to the managers of radio stations. Mr. Carnegie interspersed his (probably dramatized) reactions to each paragraph. Here is a sample:

Mr. John Blank,
Blankville, Indiana

Dear Mr. Blank:

The _______ company desires to retain its position in advertising agency leadership in the radio field.

[Who cares what your company desires? I am worried about my own problems. The bank is foreclosing the mortgage on my house, the bugs are destroying the hollyhocks, the stock market tumbled yesterday. I missed the eight-fifteen this morning, I wasn’t invited to the Jones’s dance last night, the doctor tells me I have high blood pressure and neuritis and dandruff. And then what happens? I come down to the office this morning worried, open my mail and here is some little whippersnapper off in New York yapping about what his company wants. Bah! If he only realized what sort of impression his letter makes, he would get out of the advertising business and start manufacturing sheep dip.]

This agency’s national advertising accounts were the bulwark of the network. Our subsequent clearances of station time have kept us at the top of agencies year after year.

[You are big and rich and right at the top, are you? So what? I don’t give two whoops in Hades if you are as big as General Motors and General Electric and the General Staff of the U.S. Army all combined. If you had as much sense as a half-witted hummingbird, you would realize that I am interested in how big I am – not how big you are. All this talk about your enormous success makes me feel small and unimportant.]

We desire to service our accounts with the last word on radio station information.

[You desire! You desire. You unmitigated ass. I’m not interested in what you desire or what the President of the United States desires. Let me tell you once and for all that I am interested in what I desire – and you haven’t said a word about that yet in this absurd letter of yours.]

And so on.

Mr. Carnegie wrote those words 75 years ago. It is tempting to assume that, in our “non-judgmental” era, readers are more tolerant of writing that lacks empathy.

In fact, the opposite is true: Readers are less tolerant than ever. As direct-response marketers have confirmed by test after test, the average reader spends about four seconds deciding whether to read your letter** or drop it into the wastebasket.

That means the average reader (230 words per minute) will give you only 15 words to get him interested in what you have to say.

Now then. How many words are you willing to waste talking about yourself before you directly and clearly tell the reader what’s in it for him?

The Takeaway: Empathy is the first thing a writer needs. Discipline is the second. Everything else is a detail. Here are links to ten of my posts about empathy:

Puerile writing vs. grown-up writing (1)
Avoid being too academic – even if you’re an academic
If you want to build trust, don’t use jargon
Readers can't help judging you by your writing
“The Gobbledygook Manifesto,” by David Meerman Scott
When a reader says your writing is not clear
Empathy for the non-technical reader
Writing can make or break the sale
Empathy always matters – sometimes a lot
The greatest error: failure to empathize

*The title, which suggests psychological manipulation, was chosen by the publisher over the author’s protests. It is grossly inaccurate. As those who have actually read the book are aware, Mr. Carnegie based his advice on sincerity, not manipulation.

**That’s for a paper letter. For an email, it’s 3 seconds or less.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mantra overload (7) – Oprah Winfrey on Jonathan Franzen

Mantra overload – the excessive use of trendy, vague expressions – is a widespread habit among celebrities. Impresario Oprah Winfrey is an example.

Here is the statement she issued when, in 2001, she disinvited novelist Jonathan Franzen to appear on her show (color added, to highlight mantras):

“Jonathan Franzen will not be on the Oprah Winfrey show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict.”

I count 4 mantras in 38 words.

The Takeaway: If you intend to write clearly, do not mimic celebrities. With rare exceptions, their speech and writing is superficial or evasive – and loaded with mantras. In writing, and especially in formal writing, use mantras sparingly or not at all. Keep asking yourself, “What do I really mean?” Over time, this diligent habit will make your writing more precise and more honest.

See disclaimer.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Grammatical parallelism, parallel structure, parallel construction, parallel form (4)

Grammatical parallelism is also called parallel structure, parallel construction, and parallel form. It is the use of equivalent syntax to array equivalent ideas. Parallelism makes writing easier to read; faulty parallelism makes writing harder to read.

An example of faulty parallelism

Consider the following list of “13 Horrific Social Media Practices.”

1. #Placing a #hashtag #before #each #word of a #tweet

2. Ensuring that every tweet includes an @reply with your name. Nope that doesn’t increase your Klout…

3. Arbitrary people @replying you in their tweets trying to sell you something…très annoying

4. Complaining about your job , bosses, relationships and life in general day after day after day…Get over yourself

5. Providing sage quotes as your status updates daily…yes you’re clever, very clever

6. Faceless, nameless entities commenting on blog posts with the line “Great Post/ Great Content…I found it useful” and leading back to some dodgy link. Thank goodness for askimet and by the way we know you are a bot.

7. The demise of Google Wave…I’m probably one of the few who will miss you.

8. Posting unflattering pics of yourselves and receiving “Wow…great photo…you look lovely” comments from friends. Note to you, they aren’t really your friends.

9. Friends tagging you in unflattering photos. Are these really your friends?

10. Not having the dsilike button on Facebook.

11. Having the dislike button but knowing I’ll never use it because “my friends” may be offended. I’m human after all , can’t live with… can’t live without

12. Fanpages that don’t allow fan comments by default.

13. Forums which insist that you must add their logo before you can participate /get an invite / use them.

Analysis of the example

This list rates a high 65.9 on the Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) test, because the sentences are short (average 12.5 words) and the words are short (average 4.6 characters). However, the list is not easy to read; the major reason* is faulty parallelism. The list contains four different grammatical structures: gerund; subject and participial phrase; subject and relative clause; subject and no phrase, clause or verb:

01 placing a hashtag (gerund)
02 ensuring that (gerund)
03 people replying (subject and participial phrase)
04 complaining about (gerund)
05 providing quotes (gerund)
06 entities commenting (subject and participial phrase)
07 demise of Google Wave (subject and no phrase, clause or verb)
08 posting pics (gerund)
09 friends tagging (subject and participial phrase)
10 having the button (gerund)
11 having the button (gerund)
12 fanpages that allow (subject and relative clause)
13 forums which insist (subject and relative clause)

Normally, readers expect to encounter only one structure throughout a list. So, each time the structure changes, readers are thrown off balance; they have to decode a new structure. The effect is cumulative; readers’ frustration increases with each change.

The Takeaway: Check your parallel constructions to make sure they really are parallel. This is one of the quickest fixes you can make during a copy-edit. Parallelism will make your copy easier to read. Your readers will notice and appreciate it.

*There are other types of errors in this list, but we don’t have the space to discuss them here.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

More John Leo: good advice for young writers

Recently I recommended an essay by author John Leo, a man who has wisdom useful to young writers.

Here’s a longer piece by Mr. Leo. It’s a speech he delivered at Ursinus College in 2006. It combines good advice on the basics of writing and interesting background on how writing has changed over the last few generations.

As an example of change, the speech describes how the per-word pricing of telegrams inspired telegram senders to omit all unnecessary words. Occasionally, this “telegraphic” style caused amusing ambiguities, such as in this celebrated example:

When Cary Grant was abroad, a feature writer cabled him from New York to doublecheck his age. “How old Cary Grant?” asked the message. Grant cabled back, “Old Cary Grant fine. How you?”

The Takeaway: Read John Leo’s speech, “On Good Writing.” In only 3,250 words, it delivers a wealth of advice useful to young writers.

See disclaimer.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A readability example, before and after (1)

To produce clear writing, you need to produce readable writing. Readability is a prerequisite to clarity. Let’s take a look at a readability example: two difficult paragraphs and a rewrite of the same two paragraphs.

For the readability measurements, I used Flesch Reading Ease (FRE). FRE scores typically run from 0 (very low readability) to 100 (very high readability). Here are a few sample ranges of scores:

60s Reader’s Digest
50s Time magazine
40s The Wall Street Journal
30s Harvard Law Review; white papers
20s IRS forms; academic papers
10s Many high-tech web sites

Readability example: before

Here are two consecutive paragraphs from the web site of a technology company:

Maintaining compliance with the growing number of industry regulations can be an overwhelming, costly and time consuming effort for organizations. Additionally, the financial and legal ramifications of a regulatory violation could be enormous, not to mention the potential negative impact on an organization’s reputation. Assuring the integrity and privacy of financial and operational information is a necessity for an organization's risk mitigation and regulatory compliance strategy.

Today’s enterprise needs to comply with international, federal and state mandates, follow corporate best practices and maintain client and investor confidence, therefore organizations must have continuous auditing and compliance processes and controls in place to safeguard critical data.

The FRE score is 0.0 – harder to read than a tax form.

Readability example: after

Without losing any important content, you could quickly and easily revise it to this:

To comply with the growing number of industry regulations can be overwhelming, costly and time consuming. A single violation could be costly and legally complex. And it could damage your reputation. You must assure the integrity and privacy of financial and operational information. And you must make this assurance part of your risk mitigation and regulatory compliance strategy.

Today, you must comply with international, federal and state mandates. You must follow corporate best practices and maintain client and investor confidence. To achieve all that, you need to safeguard critical data. And to do that, you need to have continuous auditing and compliance processes and controls in place.

The FRE score is 40.5 – about as readable as The Wall Street Journal.

Whenever you write, be mindful of word length and sentence length. Whenever you edit, watch for long words that should be short words. And consider breaking up any sentences longer than 20 words.

For business writing, always try for a score above 50. Settle for 30 to 50 if the topic requires it (as I did here). But never go below 30. That’s where you start losing readers – and sales.

Readers of academic and scientific writing generally tolerate lower readability than readers of business writing. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should strive for a low score in academic and scientific writing. All readers appreciate high readability, often unconsciously.

The Takeaway: Get in the habit of checking readability as you check spelling. Aim high. With continued practice, you will be able to attain high scores almost effortlessly.

See Disclaimer.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The maniacal use of “issues” (4)

In earlier posts (1, 2, 3), I explained that the vague word issues had become a mania word. Many writers and speakers abuse this handy word in order to avoid speaking clearly or committing themselves; in short, they use it as a weasel word.

Here’s another example of the abuse of issues.

An article in Spiegel Online, titled “The Last Four Minutes of Air France Flight 447: Reconstruction of 447’s Final Minutes Reveal Continuing Safety Problems in Civil Aviation” (February 26, 2010), contained these paragraphs:

Flying through thunderclouds over the Atlantic, more and more ice was hurled at the aircraft. In the process, it knocked out other, far more important, sensors: the pencil-shaped airspeed gauges known as pitot tubes.

One alarm after another lit up the cockpit monitors. One after another, the autopilot, the automatic engine control system, and the flight computers shut themselves off. “It was like the plane was having a stroke,” says Gérard Arnoux, the head of the French pilots union SPAF.

The final minutes of flight AF 447 had begun. Four minutes after the airspeed indicator failed, the plane plunged into the ocean, killing all 228 people on board.

Pitot tubes sometimes also fail on Boeing aircraft. When SPIEGEL contacted the American Federal Aviation Administration, the body which oversees civilian flight in the US, the FAA confirmed that there had been eight such incidents on a Boeing 777, three on a 767, and one each on a 757 and a Jumbo. Boeing is currently conducting a study on the safety effects of “high-altitude pitot icing on all models in its product line,” says FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette. The FAA did not, however, identify “any safety issues arising” during these incidents.

What did the FAA spokeswoman (or, if the reporter paraphrased her words, the reporter) mean by the vague phrase “safety issues”?

She (or he) may have meant to say that, during the 13 incidents studied by Boeing, the pitot tubes had not iced up;

Or the pitot tubes had iced up, but not enough to have affected the airspeed readings;

Or the pitot tubes had iced up and had affected the airspeed readings, but not by enough to shut down the autopilot;

Or the pitot tubes had iced up and had affected the airspeed readings and had shut down the autopilot, but not the automatic engine control system or the flight computers;

Or the pitot tubes had iced up and had affected the airspeed readings and had shut down the autopilot and automatic engine control system, but not the flight computers;

Or, the pitot tubes had iced up and had affected the airspeed readings and had shut down the autopilot, automatic engine control system and flight computers, as on the doomed Air France Flight 447, but the crews had overcome these problems and had landed safely.

Or one of many other possible meanings.

The Takeaway: Let others be maniacal; you be sober. Before you reach for the handy, vague word issues, ask yourself, “What is a clear way to make my point?” Don’t make your readers guess what you mean; if you do it frequently, your readers may become suspicious of your intentions.

See disclaimer.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A mixed metaphor in a book title

An amusing mixed metaphor appears on the cover of Creationism’s Trojan Horse, by Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross; the book’s subtitle is The Wedge of Intelligent Design.

The Takeaway: Have a great day.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Bad diction: the uninhabited clause (11)

Overuse of the uninhabited clause is a form of bad diction. I use the phrase “uninhabited clause” to describe a main clause* with a subject that is a physical thing or a concept, as opposed to a person or group of persons.

I have selected two 200-word passages to highlight the difference between uninhabited clauses and inhabited clauses.

Passage 1: Mostly Uninhabited

Here are seven consecutive sentences, totaling 204 words, from Thomas L. Friedman:

Indeed, Mortenson’s efforts remind us what the essence of the “war on terrorism” is about. It’s about the war of ideas within Islam — a war between religious zealots who glorify martyrdom and want to keep Islam untouched by modernity and isolated from other faiths, with its women disempowered, and those who want to embrace modernity, open Islam to new ideas and empower Muslim women as much as men. America’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were, in part, an effort to create the space for the Muslim progressives to fight and win so that the real engine of change, something that takes nine months and 21 years to produce — a new generation — can be educated and raised differently.

Which is why it was no accident that Adm. Mike Mullen, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — spent half a day in order to reach Mortenson’s newest school and cut the ribbon. Getting there was fun. Our Chinook helicopter threaded its way between mountain peaks, from Kabul up through the Panjshir Valley, before landing in a cloud of dust at the village of Pushghar. Imagine if someone put a new, one-story school on the moon, and you’ll appreciate the rocky desolateness of this landscape.

There are seven subjects of main clauses. One subject is human; six are non-human:

NON-HUMAN - efforts remind
NON-HUMAN - it is
NON-HUMAN - invasions were
NON-HUMAN - which is
NON-HUMAN - getting was
NON-HUMAN - helicopter threaded
HUMAN - [you] imagine

Passage 2: Mostly inhabited

Here are nine consecutive sentences, a total of 199 words, from Malcolm Gladwell:

At a hearing on Capitol Hill in May, James Moroney, the publisher of the Dallas Morning News, told Congress about negotiations he’d just had with the online retailer Amazon. The idea was to license his newspaper’s content to the Kindle, Amazon’s new electronic reader. “They want seventy per cent of the subscription revenue,” Moroney testified. “I get thirty per cent, they get seventy per cent. On top of that, they have said we get the right to republish your intellectual property to any portable device.” The idea was that if a Kindle subscription to the Dallas Morning News cost ten dollars a month, seven dollars of that belonged to Amazon, the provider of the gadget on which the news was read, and just three dollars belonged to the newspaper, the provider of an expensive and ever-changing variety of editorial content. The people at Amazon valued the newspaper’s contribution so little, in fact, that they felt they ought then to be able to license it to anyone else they wanted. Another witness at the hearing, Arianna Huffington, of the Huffington Post, said that she thought the Kindle could provide a business model to save the beleaguered newspaper industry. Moroney disagreed.

There are ten subjects of main clauses. Eight are human; two are non-human:

HUMAN - James Moroney told
NON-HUMAN - idea was
HUMAN - They want
HUMAN - I get
HUMAN - they get
HUMAN - they have said
NON-HUMAN - idea was
HUMAN - people valued
HUMAN - witness said
HUMAN - Moroney disagreed

In Mr. Friedman’s passage, 17 percent of subjects are human; In Mr. Gladwell’s sample, 80 percent are human. You can feel the difference. Generally speaking, the greater the percentage of human subjects, the more immediate the writing feels.

Please note: I have compared these two brief passages from two authors only to discuss a single point of diction. I have not implied a comparison of their overall writing styles.

The Takeaway: Whenever you feel that your prose sounds remote, conduct this test. Select a paragraph or two. Take out a pen and circle every non-human subject of every main clause. Then read aloud all those non-human subjects and their verbs, as in the list above. You will see, hear and feel the remoteness of your copy. Where possible, put in some people. It will make your prose feel more immediate to your reader.

*Also called primary clause, independent clause, and sentence.

See disclaimer.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Placement of modifiers (12)

Careless placement of modifiers is a frequent cause of unclear (and annoying) writing. Don’t make your readers rely on interpretation or guesswork.

Example of the careless placement of a modifier

An article about the 2009-2010 Toyota recalls contains this paragraph:

“Now, the agents of the government, which controls GM, are publicly castigating Toyota in an attempt to smear the company and increase their own profitability. As a direct competitor with Toyota by way of involvement with GM, the assault against Toyota represents one of the most public conflicts of interests the business world has experienced.” (Boldface added.)

Critique of the example

The reader may correctly guess that “As a direct competitor with Toyota by way of involvement with GM” is a prepositional phrase acting as an adverb and modifying the verb represents. The reader also may correctly guess that the preposition as at the beginning of the prepositional phrase probably means “in the role of” and therefore must refer to a person or group of persons, specifically the person or group of persons that represents. But this person or group of persons is not present in the sentence; the subject of the verb represents is the word assault.

If the reader is persistent, he may look back and guess that the preposition as probably refers to government, which is a group of persons and could logically and grammatically be the subject of the verb represents.

The second sentence should have been something like this:

Because the government is a direct competitor with Toyota by way of involvement with GM, its assault on Toyota is a conflict of interest.

The Takeaway: Place every modifier carefully. When a modifier is a phrase, construct the phrase carefully. Making your readers work harder to read a sentence than you worked to write it is indolent and rude. Your readers may resent you for it.

See disclaimer.